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Splashdown is Just the Start for NASA Heat Shield Recovery Team
by Staff Writers
Washington DC (SPX) Nov 10, 2022

File image of LOFTID being tested during assembly.

After NASA's inflatable heat shield splashes down 500 miles off the coast of Hawaii, the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID, technology demonstration will be complete - but the mission's recovery team will still be hard at work.

LOFTID is scheduled to launch Nov. 10 aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V as a secondary payload with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a weather satellite. Once LOFTID reaches space the heat shield will inflate, then re-enter Earth's atmosphere, demonstrating how it could help payloads slow down and survive re-entry.

During launch, twelve NASA and ULA team members will be waiting aboard a ship, the Kahana II, in the Pacific Ocean. The team will leave port before launch and take two days to reach the splashdown ellipse east of Honolulu.

The team's first goal is to recover LOFTID, which wasn't designed to float. Then they'll proceed to the ejectable data module (EDM), a backup recording of the sensor and camera data that will be ejected prior to splashdown. Recovering the EDM can wait, as the lemon-shaped device is designed to float and send GPS data for 30 days.

"We want the flight data - that means mission success," said Robert Dillman, LOFTID recovery operations lead at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. "There are data packets being sent during the demonstration and a complete dataset on board and the EDM, but we can get so much more information from looking at the heat shield."

To find the heat shield, the team is using several tools, helped by the fact that LOFTID will transmit GPS coordinates as it descends. A relay of weather balloons, released in sequence, will provide GPS coverage of the landing ellipse before LOFTID splashes down.

"They have to be released at certain times, so they get high enough to relay data but not so high that they pop," said Robert Mosher, LOFTID tracking team lead at NASA Langley.

Aboard the ship will be two infrared cameras that will also help the team track LOFTID.

Another team will image LOFTID from a unique vantage point in the sky. NASA's Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery (SCIFLI) team will fly on a Gulfstream-IV aircraft to capture infrared imagery of the heat shield to compare with on-board data. In partnership with Blue Origin, the SCIFLI team will gather real-time temperature and heating data on the LOFTID thermal protection system, allowing the teams to understand the complex aerodynamic and aerothermal flight environments for continued system improvements.

As the ship nears LOFTID, the team can navigate towards the heat shield thanks to its bright white recovery lights - similar to aircraft avoidance lights - that have reflective housings and can work up to four hours.

The team will either use a small retrieval boat or two 30-foot boat hooks, depending on the state of the seas, to prepare LOFTID to be pulled from the water. Four buoys will be attached to the ends of LOFTID's parachute lines to keep it afloat. A crane will be hooked to LOFTID, and a net will be used to support the weight of the water-logged thermal protection system as it's lifted onto the ship. The team will document the state of the heat shield and the recovery process.

"Every time we maneuver the heat shield it's a chance for damage. In this test, we want to learn as much as we can, so we'll be getting as much video and photo as possible during recovery," said Greg Swanson, LOFTID instrumentation lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.

The flight inflation system will have vented the remaining nitrogen before splashdown. On the boat, the heat shield will be re-inflated. Since the inflation system will be soaked in salt water, the team created a simplified ground-based version. A special stand was fabricated at NASA Langley to hold the heat shield.

After the heat shield is recovered, the team will recover the EDM, and it will take about two days for the ship to get back to port. Back on land, the team will perform another inspection before shipping it back to NASA Langley.

The data from the heat shield, the EDM, and the post-recovery inspections will help inform future tests and commercial use of NASA's inflatable heat shield technology that could one day help land humans on Mars.

LOFTID is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Kutter, manager of advanced programs at United Launch Alliance (ULA), who passed away in August 2020 and was an advocate for technologies like LOFTID that can lower the cost of access to space.

Related Links
Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID)
Rocket Science News at Space-Travel.Com

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