Tuesday 6 January 2015

NASA Explores Inflatable Spacecraft Technology

At NASA’s Langley Research Centre located in Hampton, engineers have been devising a way to land astronauts on Mars which according to them seems that a simple thing like a child’s toy design would help to solve the problem. The progress is on, in the development of an inflatable heat shield which looks like a super-sized version of a stacking of doughnuts which an infant normally plays with.

The engineers are of the belief that a lightweight, inflatable heat shield could help to slow the craft to enter a Martian atmosphere which is much thinner to the Earth’s atmosphere. Landing safely in a large spacecraft on the Red planet is one of the many challenges faced as they are keen on sending humans, deep into space later this century.

This designed inflatable heat shield will enable the spacecraft to reach high altitude southern plains of Mars as well as other areas which otherwise would not be accessible under the prevailing technology. According to the experts, the rockets cannot be used to land a large spacecraft on Mars as done on the moon. Moreover, parachutes too would be of no use for a large spacecraft to send humans to the planet Mars.

Rings Filled with Nitrogen/Covered with Thermal Blanket

The inflatable rings would be the most appropriate option which would be filled with nitrogen and then covered with thermal blanket and once deployed to land, the rings could sit atop the spacecraft which resembles to some extent like a giant mushroom.

According to the senior engineer at Langley for advanced entry, descent and landing systems, Neil Cheatwood, he states that they are trying not to use propulsion if not required and will make use of that atmosphere as much as possible since it would mean that they will not have to carry the fuel with them. NASA’s leaders accept that getting humans to and from Mars safely, as early as 2030 would be very challenging. The scientists’ agency also agree that they should design new in-space propulsion systems with advanced spacesuits, long term living habitats abroad spacecraft as well as communication systems for deep space.

Work in Progress and Ready for Operational Use - By2016

This experiments needs to be tested on how second generation inflatable spacecraft technology would perform on re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere. The testing is important since NASA officials are of the belief that an inflatable heat shield could be helpful for the astronauts to land on Mars and return with larger loads of supplies from the International Space Station and the experiment is scheduled on the next Antares rocket in 2016.

This new technology would be needed to land the astronauts on Mars since the kind of spacecraft which land humans would be larger than that which had landed on the planet earlier. The present heat shield technology is too much on the larger side with regards to weight which means that it cannot land anything larger than the rover which had been sent previously. Since the Viking program in the 1970s, NASA had relied on parachute based deceleration on Mars.

Work on the inflatable technology by the engineers at Langley has been going on for about a decade and is probably close to being ready for operational use.

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