NASA tests umbrella-like heat shield for future manned Mars missions

Engineers at a NASA facility have tested a prototype foldable heat shield by blasting it with a flow of heated air – an environment it would have to endure when entering Mars’ atmosphere.

Landing on Mars is a big technical challenge. For instance, to place the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet, NASA used a combination of a heat shield, a parachute and an air crane equipped with rocket engines. On Earth, chutes are enough to land crew capsules, but the Martian atmosphere is much thinner, so extra technologies are needed.

NASA’s Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT) is a project that would make the task a bit easier. It’s a heat shield that is made of resin-coated woven carbon fabric and a rigid support structure that is folded to fit into payload bay and opens up like an umbrella when the mission demands it.

Its biggest advantage compared to traditional plastic ablative heat shield is that it can have a significantly bigger surface with lower weight, which would make it effective at higher altitudes. This in turn allows for a wider range of landing trajectories, smaller accelerations and less stress, eliminates the need for a special supersonic parachute and generally makes life easier for engineers.

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An ADEPT shield prototype was successfully tested in a heating simulation at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, NASA reported Tuesday. It was blasted by a flow of air from a 20-cm diameter nozzle. The surface temperatures of shield reached 1,700 degrees Celsius. The arm supporting the shield had to be cooled with water during the test.

“The testing approach demonstrated with this test will enable future, more extensive testing of the ADEPT configuration – toward possible future use of the system on missions bigger than anything NASA’s ever flown,” NASA said.

The agency says it may have an operational ADEPT heat shield suitable for Venus, which unlike Mars has a very thick atmosphere, by 2017. It may use it for manned Mars missions in 2035 and further use the technology for exploration of Saturn, Uranus or Neptune.