NASA — New Spacecraft Will Be Inflatable

Mars. It comes up in every conversation concerning NASA at some point. When are we going to Mars?

It turns out that NASA is continually trying to figure out how to do just that, and it now seems that a very simple design solution might be man’s ticket to the red planet.

The question of how to safely land a large spacecraft on Mars is just one of many challenges that NASA has to figure out before sending man to the fourth planet later this century. As a result of the problem, engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center are working on an inflatable heat shield. The shield resembles an immense version of a toddler’s stacking toy. NASA engineers are confident that a lightweight, inflatable heat shield could be deployed upon entering the Martian atmosphere to help slow a spacecraft down before touchdown.

The development and implementation of such a device could open up a much wider range of touchdown locations on the red planet. NASA thinks that the use of such an inflatable heat shield could make it possible to reach the high-altitude southern plains of Mars and other areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. The problem with Mars is that it has an atmosphere. Landing a craft on Mars will be more difficult than landing on the moon – where there is no atmosphere. Rockets alone just won’t cut it. Additionally, though Mars has an atmosphere, it’s much thinner than that of Earth’s, so parachutes alone won’t work either.

The inflatable rings that NASA is coming up with will be filled with nitrogen and wrapped in a thermal blanket. After being deployed (inflated), the rings will sit on top of the spacecraft, making it appear like a giant mushroom.

Neil Cheatwood, the senior engineer at Langley for advanced entry, descent and landing systems, commented on the new inflatable system.

“We try to not use propulsion if we don’t 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.”

NASA is looking to send humans to Mars as early as 2030, but they understand the challenge will be a difficult one. In addition to figuring out just how to land a spacecraft on the red planet, NASA has to also design new in-space propulsion systems, long-term living habitats aboard the spacecraft, advanced spacesuits, communication systems for deep space, and a hundred other solutions for problems that haven’t even been thought up yet.

[Image via Wired]