NASA engineers are examining the idea that the dream of a human colony on Mars could be child’s play, conjecturing that a familiar colorful preschool toy could provide the key to safely landing spacecraft on the surface. Current technology would put the high-altitude regions of the Red Planet’s southern plains out of reach. However, if researchers are correct and testing goes well, NASA will be one step closer to its vision to pioneer the first Mars colony by the 2030s.
The key, according to engineers at the Langley Research Center, is an inflatable heat shield in stacking rings that resembles the pyramidal stacking toy, a playtime staple for generations of young children. Its lightweight design makes it more feasible than rockets or parachutes as part of a spacecraft’s payload and requires less fuel, further lightening the ship’s weight for the transit to Mars. Once deployed, NASA scientists conjecture that it would slow the spacecraft for its migration through the thin Martian atmosphere to the colony site.
A colony ship would be larger than any existing spacecraft necessitating a lighter weight heat shield to leave room in the ship’s total weight capacity for the supplies needed to sustain the colonists once they arrived at the Red Planet, as well as science experiments and shipboard supplies. The current bulkiness limits the size of exploratory ships to NASA’s rovers. Though parachute deceleration has been an agency staple for over 35 years, a new paradigm of space travel must take its place if a Mars colony is to become a reality.
The inflatable nitrogen-filled rings would be encased in a thermal blanket. Upon commencing landing procedures, the rings would be deployed on top of the spacecraft, giving the appearance of a jumbo-sized mushroom. NASA’s Langley senior engineer, Neil Cheatwood explains that the goal is to avoid using propulsion to save on fuel and leverage the atmosphere as much as possible to assist the colony ship in landing safely on the surface of Mars.
Senior NASA administrators recognize that establishing a safe means of transporting colonists to and from Mars in the next 15 to 20 years is a lofty goal fraught with exceptional challenges. Problems yet to be solved include a working propulsion design for the long space voyage, state of the art spacesuits and human habitats designed for long-term use on the ship and on the planet’s surface and deep space communications. The idea for the inflatable heat shield is that it will compress into a very small space, leaving room for other supplies but it would deploy to an immense size, similar to a car’s airbags.
The technology was scheduled for testing aboard the ill-fated private Antares rocket that exploded shortly after liftoff last October. Orbital Sciences invited NASA researchers to put the experiment onto another rocket, but they need more time to put together another device. They plan to test how the inflatable technology functions upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere following a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). They conjecture that the results will give them clues as to how the inflatable heat shield technology needs honing before it can be employed on a manned Mars mission. The inflatable rings would also allow ships to carry larger loads from the ISS and explore other planets or spatial bodies with atmospheres. NASA currently plans to have the experiment ready for the Antares rocket launch in 2016.
Langley engineers have been developing the inflatable technology for 10 years and they feel they are on the brink of a working model that takes child’s play to a whole new level. All that is lacking is sufficient funding to put the large-scale model into operation but they conjecture that when NASA works out the budget, they could be ready for launch within five to 10 years. The current model for testing will not be large enough for a manned colony mission to Mars. Nonetheless, NASA researchers are confident that they are on the right track with the durable inflatable technology making a human colony on Mars an achievable goal sooner than the early astronauts would ever have dreamed possible.
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Full Time Whistle
Image courtesy of NASA