Splashdown! LOFTID Set for Retrieval in the Pacific

LOFTID has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii. Once the aeroshell’s location is determined, the recovery boat will head towards the aeroshell for attempted retrieval. Following retrieval, the team will recover the ejectable data recorder.

Additional updates will be provided over the next few days, as available.

LOFTID’s Parachutes Have Deployed

Teams confirmed the ejectable data recorder jettisoned and have received GPS data on its location.  LOFTID’s parachutes are expected to have deployed, preparing LOFTID for splashdown in less than 10 minutes.

End of LOFTID Technology Demonstration

According to the team’s predictions, LOFTID should have slowed down to Mach 0.7 — from a maximum speed of Mach 29 — marking the end of the demonstration and data collection. As LOFTID approaches splashdown in approximately 16 minutes, the ejectable data module will jettison and the parachute will deploy.

LOFTID Reaches Maximum Re-entry Heating

Over the past few minutes, LOFTID’s thermal protection system should have reached maximum re-entry heating, and the inflatable structure should have reached maximum re-entry pressure load.

LOFTID is only sending limited real-time data during the demonstration. Full data, including the maximum heating and pressure load experienced, will be confirmed after landing and recovery.

LOFTID Re-entry Begins

LOFTID returns to Earth
LOFTID is fully inflated as it begins it re-entry. 

The team was able to visually confirm full inflation of the re-entry vehicle. LOFTID is now estimated to be at about 78 miles in altitude, the point the LOFTID team considers the start of atmospheric re-entry.

LOFTID Aeroshell Fully Inflated; Re-entry in 25 Minutes

At this time, the aeroshell should have reached a full inflation pressure of 19 psi. LOFTID is only sending limited real-time data during the demonstration. Full data, including confirmation of the final inflation pressure, will be confirmed after landing and recovery.

LOFTID is now coasting toward the atmosphere and re-entry is expected to start in approximately 25 minutes.

LOFTID Separates From Centaur Upper Stage

After orienting LOFTID to an acceptable separation angle, Centaur spun up and released the re-entry vehicle. Spinning at three rotations per minute keeps the LOFTID vehicle stable and pointed in the right throughout re-entry.

LOFTID’S Aeroshell Inflates

NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) heat shield inflates in orbit before its re-entry and splashdown on Thursday, Nov. 10.
NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) heat shield inflates in orbit before its re-entry and splashdown on Thursday, Nov. 10.
Credits: NASA

Aeroshell inflation has started. Once the aeroshell reaches four pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure, Centaur will begin positioning LOFTID for re-entry.

NASA’s LOFTID Technology Demonstration Begins

United Launch Alliance’s Centaur upper stage has successfully powered on the LOFTID re-entry vehicle, kicking off the LOFTID mission sequence. About two minutes after power on, Centaur released the payload adapter that had connected JPSS-2 to the rocket’s upper stage.

Limited data will be received real-time during the technology demonstration. Other milestones are notional given the mission timeline and sequence.

NASA’s LOFTID: A New Kind of Heat Shield

Illustration of Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID).
Illustration of Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). Credit: NASA

NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), dedicated to the memory of Bernard Kutter – a manager of advanced programs at United Launch Alliance (ULA) who championed lower-cost access to space and technologies to make that a reality – is a partnership between NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and ULA to demonstrate an inflatable aerodynamic decelerator, or aeroshell, technology that could one day help land humans on Mars.

Since NASA’s inception in 1958, the agency has relied heavily on rigid aeroshells (a protective shell composed of a heat shield and a back shell), parachutes, and retro-propulsion (rockets) to decelerate people, vehicles, and hardware during orbital entry, descent, and landing operations. The LOFTID demonstration is poised to revolutionize the way NASA and industry deliver payloads to planetary destinations with atmospheres.

After more than a decade of development of Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) technology, including two suborbital flight tests, the LOFTID orbital flight test is the next step. This return from orbit demonstration provides an entry environment relevant to many potential applications, paving the way for its use on future missions. The LOFTID re-entry vehicle, at 19.7 feet (6 meters) diameter, will be the largest blunt body aeroshell to ever go through atmospheric entry.

When a spacecraft enters an atmosphere, aerodynamic forces – like drag – act upon it, slowing it down and converting its kinetic energy into heat. Using atmospheric drag typically is the most mass-efficient method to slow down a spacecraft. Since HIAD technology is larger than traditional aeroshells, it creates more drag and starts the deceleration process in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, allowing not only heavier payloads, but also landing at higher altitudes. It could additionally be used to bring an unprecedented amount of mass back from low-Earth orbit, including items from the International Space Station. Another significant potential benefit is enabling the recovery of rocket assets for reuse which can reduce the overall cost of access to space.

The HIAD design consists of an inflatable structure that maintains its shape against the drag forces, and a protective flexible thermal protection system that withstands the heat of reentry. The inflatable structure is constructed with a stack of pressurized concentric rings, or tori, that are strapped together to form an exceptionally strong blunt cone-shaped structure.

The rings are made from braided synthetic fibers that are, by weight, 10 times stronger than steel. A flexible thermal protection system insulates the rings from the searing heat of atmospheric entry; LOFTID can withstand temperatures in excess of 2900°F (1600°C). It’s constructed with three layers: an exterior ceramic fiber cloth layer to maintain integrity of the surface, a middle layer of insulators to inhibit heat transmission, and an interior layer that prevents hot gas from reaching the inflatable structure. The flexible thermal protection system is also foldable, packable, deployable, and tailorable. Because it is flexible, it takes up less room in the rocket and allows the design to be scalable.

LOFTID is managed by the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, with contributions from various NASA centers: Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California; Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; and Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, managed today’s launch.