safe and sound

This inflatable device could be the key to landing humans on Mars

NASA Langley Research Center

NASA

It might look like a giant loudspeaker, but this inflatable NASA device wasn’t designed to blast sounds into space.

Instead, this puffy disc might hold the key to landing humans soundly on Mars.

It’s an inflatable heat shield designed to create drag in the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere and soften the landing for heavy missions.

NASA

But before attaching it to any Mars-bound spacecraft, the novel heat shield had to be tested in Earth’s atmosphere.

Last week, NASA successfully inflated and landed the device in a demonstration called the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator — LOFTID for short.

It blasted into space on board an Atlas V rocket, tucked beneath the weather satellite JPSS-2 that was set into orbit during the same trip.

While JPSS-2 took its position above Earth, LOFTID’s goal was to fall back down to our home planet and prove that its inflatable shield could survive the descent.

Here are 9 memorable moments from the LOFTID demonstration:

NASA

9. Before departing for space, the heat shield had to undergo several lab tests. Here it is during an inflation test earlier this year.

NASA Langley Research Center

NASA

8. The JPSS-2 satellite is carefully stacked atop the LOFTID payload in preparation for launch.

7. Liftoff! The Atlas V rocket blasts LOFTID and JPSS-2 into space on November 10.

NASA

6. Once in low-Earth orbit, JPSS-2 detached from the rocket, giving LOFTID space to inflate.

NASA

NASA

5. Poof! The heat shield expands to full size.

4. Slowly, LOFTID drifts away from the rocket as it begins its descent back to Earth.

NASA

3. LOFTID’s heat shield glows bright white as it sails down into the ocean, due to extreme heat generated during atmospheric re-entry.

NASA

2. LOFTID bobs in the water, waiting to be rescued.

NASA

NASA

1. Crews prepare to reel LOFTID (top right) back to safety.

NASA

NASA reported that the rescue mission was a success.

Now researchers will analyze LOFTID’s data and determine if the heat shield will be up to the task of carrying humankind to the Red Planet — and possibly other faraway worlds.