| Brock Vergakis |
NORFOLK, Virginia (AP) – Devising a way to one day land astronauts on Mars is a complex problem and NASA scientists think something as simple as a child’s toy design may help solve the problem. Safely landing a large spacecraft on the Red Planet is just one of many engineering challenges the agency faces as it eyes an ambitious goal of sending humans into deep space later this century.
At NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, engineers have been working to develop an inflatable heat shield that looks a lot like a super-sized version of a stacking ring of doughnuts that infants play with. The engineers believe a lightweight, inflatable heat shield could be deployed to slow the craft to enter a Martian atmosphere much thinner than Earth’s.
Such an inflatable heat shield could help a spacecraft reach the high-altitude southern plains of Mars and other areas that would otherwise be inaccessible under existing technology. The experts note that rockets alone can’t be used to land a large craft on Mars as can be done on the atmosphereless moon. Parachutes also won’t work for a large spacecraft needed to send humans to Mars, they add.
Hence the inflatable rings. The rings would be filled with nitrogen and covered with a thermal blanket. Once deployed for landing, the rings would sit atop the spacecraft, somewhat resembling a giant mushroom.
“We try to not use propulsion if we don’t have to,” said Neil Cheatwood, the senior engineer at Langley for advanced entry, descent and landing systems. “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.”
NASA’s leaders acknowledge that getting humans safely to and from Mars as early as the 2030s will poses extreme challenges. The agency’s scientists acknowledge they also must design new in-space propulsion systems, advanced spacesuits, long-term living habitats aboard spacecraft – even communication systems for deep space.
Work is proceeding, sometimes fitfully.
When an unmanned private rocket destined for the International Space Station exploded in October soon after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, numerous scientific experiments went up in flames with it. But one NASA experiment that Orbital Sciences Corp originally invited aboard – for a second-generation inflatable spacecraft – never made it for lack of time to get it together, NASA officials say.
That experiment calls for testing how second-generation inflatable spacecraft technology performs upon re-entry in Earth’s atmosphere. The test is important because NASA officials believe an inflatable heat shield could be what helps them land astronauts on Mars and return larger loads of supplies from the International Space Station.
The experiment is now scheduled to go up on the next Antares rocket in 2016.