NASA is planning to test the inflatable spacecraft technology for future missions to Mars.
To solve the complex problem of astronauts landing on Mars, engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center have resorted to a simple, yet inspiring measure. The agency is testing an inflatable heat shield, which was based on the idea of a stacking ring of donuts.
The scientists at NASA will aim to test how inflatable technology performs upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. They believe that a lightweight, inflatable heat shield could be deployed to slow down the aircraft, while entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere. Mars’ atmosphere is about a hundred times thinner than the Earth’s, so parachutes won’t work. But rockets alone can’t be used, like they are used during the landing on atmosphere-less moon.
Neil Cheatwood, NASA’s senior engineer for advanced entry, descent and landing systems at their base in Langley, Virginia, said, “We try to not use propulsion if we do not have to. We make use of that atmosphere as much as we can, because it means we don’t have to carry all that fuel with us.”
The landing technology will have rings that will be covered with a thermal blanket of layers of heat-resistant materials. These rings will be filled with nitrogen. After they are deployed they would head the spacecraft. Since the inflatables are made of lightweight materials and filled with gas, they will leave more space inside the spaceraft.
The idea is that you would have something that could be packed up, put in a very small volume and then deployed into a very large size,” said Anthony Calomino, principal investigator for materials and structures for hypersonic re-entry at Langley
This technology is expected to be tested in the year 2016. The inflatables will be first launched into the orbit on the next Antares rocket in 2016. NASA expects to make the first manned mission to Mars around 2030.