Currently, NASA is working hard to develop an important component for realizing human travel to the Red Planet. (They also want you to send your name to Mars). The organization is working on an inflatable heat shield for spacecraft heading to Mars at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Scientists have known that the atmosphere on Mars is much thinner than the Earth’s, making it difficult to safely land large payloads on the planet’s surface. One might think that parachutes attached to rockets could be used to slow large vehicles such as spacecraft; however, current technologies can not slow spacecraft enough to land safety on the surface of Mars.
And then comes an infant’s toy you may have played with or purchased for a child: a series of multicolored, donut-shaped rings of varying diameters stacked on top of each other in the shape of a pyramid. NASA scientists are now developing an inflatable heat shield that resembles this toy. The shield’s segments will be covered in a thermal blanket. These will inflate with nitrogen during entry into the Martian atmosphere allowing for a safe landing. In this way, engineers could avoid using propulsion on Mars to slow spacecraft and subsequently, would not need to carry as much fuel on the way from Earth to Mars, making the trip significantly cheaper. Scientists expect to test this design on the next flight of the Antares rocket, scheduled for 2016.
Recently, the Orion spacecraft, which is expected to take astronauts to Mars, successfully passed its first flight test. The next components of the Mars mission (successful entry, descent and landing) would then largely depend on the success of this new design. Inflatable heat shields have already been used to land spacecraft and instruments on Venus and Titan. In July 2012, the IRVE-3 inflatable heat shield underwent a successful inflation system test in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel of NASA’s Langley Research Center.
You might be wondering, why Mars? Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Neil deGrasse Tyson, writes that in the 1960s, scientists discovered that Mars may have once had water. And given how fundamental water is to life on Earth, it’s possible that Mars may have also harbored life at one point–or may still shelter life. As he writes, “So much of what drives cosmic exploration involves the quest to learn whether or not we’re alone in the Universe.” Mars, being so close to Earth compared to the rest of our solar system, is then a great place to start, and NASA’s newest invention might bring us that much closer to uncovering important answers, while developing newer questions.
(Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)