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.
Aeroshell inflation has started. Once the aeroshell reaches four pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure, Centaur will begin positioning LOFTID for re-entry.
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 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.
The United Launch Alliance Centaur upper stage achieved the desired sun-synchronous, polar low-Earth orbit for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System-2 satellite just over 28 minutes into flight.
Now in low-Earth orbit, the Centaur will perform a deorbit burn, jettison the primary payload adapter, and put Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) on a reentry trajectory enabling it to demonstrate the inflatable aeroshell’s ability to slow down and survive re-entry.
On Oct. 1, 1998, NASA consolidated expendable launch vehicle services shared by Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio; Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and created the Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, renamed Launch Services Program in 2000 and based out of Kennedy. On Oct. 24, 1998, Deep Space I launched on a Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex-17 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, followed by 99 more primary missions for the program over the past 34 years.
Today’s successful launch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) and NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) technology demonstration marks the program’s 100th primary mission and joins a legacy that includes historic missions such as Pluto New Horizons, the Parker Solar Probe, the Mars rovers, DART, and scores of Earth satellites and science probes.
Booster engine cutoff occurred on time, the first and second stages separated as planned, and the Centaur second stage main engine has started its burn. The payload fairing that protected the JPSS-2 satellite during the first minutes of ascent has jettisoned as expected. The second stage main engine will burn for just over 12 minutes, taking the spacecraft towards the Equator and to low-Earth orbit.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket exceeded the speed of sound around a minute into flight, and soon thereafter reached Max-Q – the moment of maximum dynamic pressure on the rocket. Next up is booster engine cutoff, followed by separation of the first and second stages of the rocket.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) satellite, with NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) technology demonstration along for the ride, lifted off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California this morning, Nov. 10! Powered by 860,000 pounds of thrust from the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket’s RD-180 engine, launch occurred at 1:49 a.m. PST.
The launch director has just given the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) satellite mission a ‘go’ for launch! Mission and launch managers are counting down to the launch of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Launch is scheduled less than five minutes from now.
JPSS-2, and NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) which is hitching a ride, should reach the desired orbit just over 28 minutes into flight. A single burn of ULA’s Centaur upper stage will place JPSS-2 into a sun-synchronous, polar low-Earth orbit for deployment. Two subsequent burns by Centaur will lower the altitude and put LOFTID on a re-entry trajectory.
This will be the 41st flight of the Atlas V 401 rocket, the most flown of all the configurations. This rocket, designated AV-098, features a four-meter-diameter Extended Payload Fairing (EPF), no solid rocket boosters and a single RL10C-1 engine on the Centaur. The JPSS-2 launch will be the 301st and final Atlas mission from Vandenberg dating back to 1959, as ULA transitions to its Vulcan rocket.
JPSS-2 is currently the last mission contracted by NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to fly on the venerable Atlas V and marks the 100th primary mission for the program since 1998.