NASA Set to Launch UFO-Looking Inflatable Heat Shield Into Space

by Taylor Cunningham
(Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

NASA will soon launch a UFO-looking inflatable heat shield into space with the hopes of one day using it to put people on Mars.

On Nov. 1, the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) will send a giant inflatable heat shield into space aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket. Once it reaches Earth’s low orbit, it will inflate and drop back to Earth.

If the experiment goes as planned, LOFTID will prove that an inflatable heat shield can slow down enough to safely cross through planets’ atmospheres.

When a typical spacecraft enters an atmosphere, aerodynamic drag converts kinetic energy into heat, and that helps it slow down as it makes its way to a planet’s surface. That process works well on our own planet. But some planets, such as Mars, have an atmosphere that is denser than Earth’s. So making successful landings can be difficult. And until scientists can perfect those landings, they can’t send astronauts to alien worlds.

NASA’s Inflatable Heat Shield Should Act Like a Break as it Delivers Large Payloads to Planets

NASA has battled with the dense atmosphere of Mars on several occasions. For example, in 2021, the Perseverance rover had to drop to the surface of the planet via a parachute. It crossed through the atmosphere going 12,000 miles per hour and had to reach zero mph within seven minutes to make a safe landing.

The Perseverance team referred to the event as “seven minutes of terror,” but it did manage to deliver the $2.7 billion craft successfully. However, NASA hopes to make those deliveries far less stressful in the near future. And it thinks it knows how.

“For destinations with an atmosphere, one of the challenges NASA faces is how to deliver heavy payloads (experiments, equipment, and people) because current rigid aeroshells are constrained by a rocket’s shroud size. One answer is an inflatable aeroshell that can be deployed to a scale much larger than the shroud,” the administration said in a blog post. “This technology enables a variety of proposed NASA missions to destinations such as Mars, Venus, Titan as well as return to Earth.”

The 20ft-wide inflatable heat shield should act as a giant brake because its “large aeroshell creates more drag than a traditional, smaller rigid aeroshell.” It will deploy when it reaches the upper atmosphere, which should help it decelerate faster and face less intense heating.

If all goes as planned, LOFTID could help NASA reach its goal of putting people on the red planet within the next 10 years. And in the more distant future, it could take them even further.

“This technology could support landing crew and large robotic missions on Mars,” the administration continued, “as well as returning heavier payloads to Earth.”