If you see what looks like a flying saucer descending to earth after November 1, don’t panic; it may well be a new heat shield launched by NASA that may presage landing successfully on Mars.

The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket accompanied by a JPSS-2 polar-orbiting weather satellite. Once the weather satellite reaches orbital levels, the saucer-shaped heat shield will inflate and separate, then descend to Earth.

Although NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars last year using a parachute, it plunged through Mars’ atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour before it was slowed to zero miles an hour before it landed, and was able to accomplish such a feat only because its payload was so light.

“The atmosphere of Mars is much less dense than that of Earth and provides an extreme challenge for aerodynamic deceleration,” NASA stated. “The atmosphere is thick enough to provide some drag, but too thin to decelerate the spacecraft as quickly as it would in Earth’s atmosphere.”

“LOFTID’s large deployable aeroshell — an inflatable structure protected by a flexible heat shield — acts as a giant brake as it traverses the Martian atmosphere,” NASA added. “The large aeroshell creates more drag than a traditional, smaller rigid aeroshell. It begins slowing down in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, allowing the spacecraft to decelerate sooner, at higher altitude, while experiencing less intense heating.”

“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,” NASA predicted.

The heat shield is strongly resistant; “The tori are made from braided synthetic fibers that are 15 times stronger than steel. The flexible structure and insulates it from the searing heat of atmospheric entry; it can withstand temperatures in excess of 2900°F (1600°C),” NASA declared.

“The inflatable decelerator technology is scalable to both crewed and large robotic missions to Mars,” NASA concluded.

NASA plans crew expeditions to the Martian system and surface of Mars after 2030.

“In the strategic sense, exploring Mars demonstrates our political and economic leadership as a nation, improves the quality of life on Earth, helps us learn about our home planet, and expands US leadership in the peaceful, international exploration of space,” NASA has stated.

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