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When a polar satellite designed to improve weather forecasting launched Thursday morning, an experimental heat shield accompanied it. It could take humans to Mars.
The two separate missions 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 in the rocket’s upper stage caused a delay. Engineers swapped and retested the battery to set the stage for a new release date.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have been launching weather satellites since 1960. The Joint Polar Satellite System-2, or JPSS-2, will be the third satellite in a fleet of the latest generation of polar-orbiting environmental satellites from NOAA.
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 more information on the climate crisis.
Once in orbit and circling the planet from the North Pole to the South Pole, the satellite will be renamed NOAA-21. The satellite will observe all points on Earth at least twice a day, according to NOAA. And when you check the weather on your phone, it will be fed by data captured by the satellite.
JPSS-2 will join two other satellites, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and NOAA-20, that make up the Joint Polar Satellite System.
“JPSS provides more than twice a day observations over the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean that help meteorologists monitor weather systems where we don’t have the benefit of weather balloons and only limited buoys, compared to the dense network of stations. weather conditions on the ground,” said Jordan Gerth. , meteorologist and satellite scientist with NOAA’s National Weather Service before launch.
A secondary payload traveling 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 inflatable heat shield technology needed to land manned missions on Mars and larger robotic missions on Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan. Something like LOFTID could also be used when returning heavy payloads to Earth.
Sending robotic or human explorers to other worlds that have an atmosphere can be challenging because the current aeroshells, or heat shields, in use depend on the size of a rocket’s shroud.
But an inflatable aeroshell could circumnavigate that dependency and open up shipping heavy missions to different planets.
When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it is hit by aerodynamic forces that 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 think a large deployable aerodynamic cloak like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could slow down as it travels 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 superintense heating. LOFTID’s demo is about 20 feet (6 meters) wide.
Approximately 90 minutes after JPSS-2 and LOFITD blast off into space, the tech demo will blast off from the polar satellite once it reaches orbit and begin LOFTID’s incredibly short mission.
After inflating, LOFTID will be reoriented by the rocket’s upper stage.
The aeroshell will then 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 down and surviving.
LOFTID’s onboard sensors will record the heat shield’s experience during its harrowing descent. Six cameras will capture 360-degree video of the LOFTID experiment, said Joe Del Corso, project manager for LOFTID at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Going back inside, LOFTID will face temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenhei and speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour. It will be the ultimate test for the materials used to build 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 retrieve 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 20 to 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 carry human crews to the surface of Mars.
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