Joint NASA-ULA Test of New Heatshield Goes Even Better Than Planned

Joint NASA-ULA Test of New Heatshield Goes Even Better Than Planned

NASA and the United Launch Alliance teamed together to test a new type of heatshield that can be used here on Earth or on Mars. Launched today in conjunction with a new weather satellite for NOAA, the test went even better than planned, with the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID, successfully recovered from the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

LOFTID is a demonstration of a 6-meter diameter Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD), or aeroshell, technology that could one day help NASA land humans on Mars.

Illustration of the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) technology demonstrator. Credit: NASA

ULA is interested in nearer-term possibilities such as using it to return the BE-4 engines that will power its new Vulcan rocket back to Earth for reuse.

NASA and ULA entered into a no-exchange-of-funds Space Act Agreement to jointly demonstrate the technology by launching it on a ULA Atlas V-Centaur mission. LOFTID was encased in a section of the Centaur upper stage where it could be released after Centaur delivered its primary payload, NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 weather satellite, to orbit.

The Atlas V lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, CA at 4:49 am ET (1:49 am Pacific) this morning and delivered JPSS-2 to a sun-synchronous polar orbit as planned. Early problems with deployment of JPSS’s solar array were resolved by late afternoon.

Liftoff of ULA’s Atlas V-Centaur rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, CA, November 10, 2022, with JPSS-2 and LOFTID. Photo credit: ULA

After Centaur separated from JPSS-2, it performed a typical de-orbit burn, but in this case jettisoned LOFTID after it inflated itself with nitrogen gas.

The aeroshell then descended through the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Although it was at night local time, infrared cameras on ULA’s recovery ship Kahana II picked it up as it floated down under parachute and softly landed in the water. The project is managed at NASA’s Langely Research Center in Hampton, VA where mission controllers applauded the success. LOFTID was later hoisted aboard the Kahana II with a crane.

LOFTID on the deck of Kahana II after recovery from the Pacific Ocean. Credit: ULA

This flexible heatshield is expected to be a significant improvement over the rigid aeroshells used so far. ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno went so far as to call it “revolutionary” and exclaimed that the test went even better than planned.

This was the final launch of Atlas V from Vandenberg. ULA is phasing out both of its rockets, Atlas V and Delta IV, as it brings the new Vulcan series online. The first launch is expected early next year.

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