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When a polar satellite designed to improve weather forecasting was launched early Thursday, an experimental heat shield followed. It could land humans on Mars.
The two separate missions were both launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California.
Both missions were originally scheduled to lift off on November 1, but a faulty battery on the rocket’s upper stage caused a delay. Engineers swapped and retested the battery to set the stage for a new launch date.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have been launching weather satellites since 1960. Joint Polar Satellite System-2, or JPSS-2, will be the third satellite in a fleet of NOAA’s latest-generation polar-orbiting environmental satellites.
The orbiter will collect data that can help scientists predict and prepare for extreme weather events such as hurricanes, snowstorms and floods.
The satellite will be able to monitor forest fires and volcanoes, measure the ocean and atmosphere, and detect dust and smoke in the air. It will also monitor ozone and atmospheric temperature, providing greater insight into the climate crisis.
Once in orbit and looping around the planet from the North Pole to the South Pole, the satellite will be renamed NOAA-21. The satellite will observe every point on Earth at least twice a day, according to NOAA. And when you check the weather on your phone, it will be powered by data captured by the satellite.
JPSS-2 will join two other satellites, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and NOAA-20, which make up the Joint Polar Satellite System.
“JPSS provides more than two daily observations over the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, which helps meteorologists monitor weather systems where we don’t have the benefit of weather balloons, and only limited buoys, compared to the dense network ground-based weather stations,” said Jordan Gerth. , meteorologist and satellite specialist at NOAA’s National Weather Service before launch.
A secondary payload that rides on the rocket is NASA’s Low Earth Orbit flight test of an Inflatable Decelerator Technology Demonstration, or LOFTID.
The mission is designed to test the inflatable heat shield technology needed to land crewed missions to Mars and larger robotic missions to Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan. Something like LOFTID could also be used when returning heavy payloads to Earth.
Sending robotic explorers or humans to other worlds that have an atmosphere can be difficult because the current aeroshells, or heat shields, used depend on the size of a rocket’s fairing.
But an inflatable aeroshell could circumvent this dependency – and open up sending heavier missions to different planets.
When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it is hit by aerodynamic forces, which help slow it down.
On Mars, where the atmosphere is only 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, extra help is needed to create the drag needed to slow down and safely land a spacecraft.
That’s why NASA engineers believe that a large deployable aeroshell like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could brake while traveling through the Martian atmosphere.
The aeroshell is designed to create more drag in the upper atmosphere to help the spacecraft slow down sooner, which also prevents some of the super intense heating. The LOFTID demonstration is approximately 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter.
Approximately 90 minutes after JPSS-2 and LOFITD lift off into space, the tech demo will detach from the polar satellite once it reaches orbit and LOFTID’s incredibly short mission will begin.
After inflation, LOFTID will be reoriented by the upper stage of the rocket.
Then the aeroshell will separate from the upper stage and attempt to re-enter the atmosphere from low Earth orbit to see if the heat shield is effective in slowing it down and surviving.
Sensors on board LOFTID will record the experience of the heat shield during its harrowing descent. Six cameras will capture 360-degree video of the LOFTID experiment, said Joe Del Corso, LOFTID project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Upon reentry, LOFTID will face temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenhei and reach speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour. It will be the ultimate test for the materials used to construct the inflatable structure, which includes a woven ceramic fabric called silicon carbide.
It is expected to fall about 500 miles off the coast of Hawaii, where a team will recover the aeroshell.
Currently, NASA can land one metric ton (2,205 pounds) on the Martian surface, like the rover Perseverance the size of a car. But something like LOFTID could land between 20 and 40 metric tons (44,092 to 88,184 pounds) on Mars, Del Corso said.
The results of Thursday’s demonstration could determine the entry, descent and landing technology that will one day deliver human crew to the surface of Mars.
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