The U.S. space agency has launched and tested an umbrella-like shield on Wednesday. The device could potentially make a manned mission to planet Mars more feasible.
The new technology, known as Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology (ADEPT), can be stored like a folded umbrella inside smaller rockets.
Spacecraft typically approach planets at extremely fast speeds. At these speeds, entering a planet’s atmosphere compresses gas, which creates pressure shocks and generates intense heat in front of the spacecraft.
NASA explained that the foldable device opens to make a round and rigid heat shield called aeroshell that can slow spacecraft during reentry and shield it from heat.
NASA said that the technology could be the key to future missions that need an extra-large aeroshell to protect spacecraft designed to land on the surface of other planets. It can also be used sans the need for larger rockets.
“At the larger scales, it could be used for something as grand as human Mars explorations, or potentially human cargo landings on Mars,” Brandon Smith, principal investigator of the project, told Reuters.
NASA is sending a new robotic lander to Mars in 2020. The rover will search for previous signs of life on the red planet and demonstrate technology that may help humans survive on the arid world.
The next plan is to send a manned mission to Mars. The goal to send humans to Earth’s closest neighbor was set in 2010 during Barack Obama’s term as president. President Donald Trump affirmed the plan last December. The new technology may help humans land on Mars.
ADEPT was tested at the spaceport in southern New Mexico on Wednesday. The device deployed between 100 and 120 kilometers before opening and going back to the surface.
The purpose of the test was to observe the initial sequence of the deployment. NASA also had to assess the aerodynamic stability of the heat shield as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere and falls to the recovery site.
Officials said that that data gathered from the test will be available once the shield is recovered.
ADEPT will be eventually tested for an Earth entry at higher orbital speeds.
“For a deployable like ADEPT, you can do ground-based testing, but ultimately, a flight test demonstrates end-to-end functionality – surviving launch environments, deploying in zero gravity and the vacuum of space, holding that rigid shape and then entering, in our case, Earth’s atmosphere,” ADEPT project manager Paul Wercinski said in a statement published by NASA on Wednesday.