NASA launches weather satellite, experimental heat shield

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket boosted a high-powered weather satellite into orbit early Thursday, then launched an inflated “retarder” back into the atmosphere for a supersonic re-entry in a dramatic test of heat shield technology that could one day help land astronauts on Mars.

But the Joint Polar Satellite System weather station, or JPSS 2, was the main payload. Launched by NASA and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, JPSS 2 was released into a 500-mile-high polar orbit 28 minutes after liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 4:49 a.m. EST.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a high-powered weather satellite and an experimental re-entry vehicle comes to life at Vandenberg Space Base. It was the last Atlas 5 to launch from the California base as ULA transitions to new Vulcan rockets. / Credit: NASA

Equipped with an array of sophisticated cameras and sensors, the $1.4 billion JPSS 2 “represents an essential step in maintaining the continuity of observations in low Earth orbit,” said Jordan Gerth, NOAA meteorologist and satellite scientist.

“JPSS data is an important input to US and international numerical weather prediction modeling systems,” he said. “With JPSS, the quality of three- to seven-day local weather forecasts is excellent.

“Second, particularly for Alaskans, JPSS provides regular coverage at the poles to detect wildfires, monitor flood extents, and monitor Arctic weather. And for all Americans, JPSS provides more than twice daily observations over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans” where weather-wise balloons and buoys are sparse.

JPSS 2 is the second of four satellites in a $12.9 billion program that includes ground station upgrades.

An artist's impression of the JPSS 2 low-Earth orbit weather satellite with its single solar array extended.  / Credit: NASA

An artist’s impression of the JPSS 2 low-Earth orbit weather satellite with its single solar array extended. / Credit: NASA

The launch and ascent went smoothly, but data confirming the deployment of its single solar array was not immediately received.

“At this time, the team has not yet received data to confirm deployment of the solar array,” NASA said in a blog post. “There may not be a problem, but we are watching closely as more telemetry data becomes available.”

While JPSS 2 was the primary payload, it provided a “rideshare” launch opportunity for NASA’s low-orbit flight test of an inflatable decelerator, or LOFTID, a sort of Frisbee-shaped heat shield launched in a compressed, deflated configuration.

After JPSS 2 launched, Atlas 5’s Centaur upper part targeted LOFTID back to Earth and sent signals to power its systems. The torus-like structure then inflated, expanding to about 20 feet in diameter, before being released to fly on its own.

Hitting the discernible atmosphere near Hawaii at about 22,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft quickly decelerated to subsonic speeds, protected by a heat-resistant coating. The reentry vehicle was expected to experience a maximum deceleration of 9 times the normal force of gravity.

Throughout the hellish dive back to Earth, numerous cameras, temperature sensors, voltage gauges and other sensors collected a steady stream of data, storing it on a recorder and a backup that was jettisoned on the way down to preserve the clues even if LOFTID could not be retrieved.

A camera on Atlas 5's Centaur upper stage captured spectacular views of the 20-foot-wide LOFTID inflatable heat shield as it launched for a supersonic re-entry into the Pacific Ocean.  The Nile River Delta is visible in the background at the time of release.  / Credit: NASA

A camera on Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage captured spectacular views of the 20-foot-wide LOFTID inflatable heat shield as it launched for a supersonic re-entry into the Pacific Ocean. The Nile River Delta is visible in the background at the time of release. / Credit: NASA

As it turned out, both the recorder and the heat shield made safe descents to crash, sending GPS coordinates to help the crew of a nearby recovery ship locate them.

It will take time for researchers to fully analyze the stored data, but the benefits of supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerators, or HIADs, like LOFTID are potentially game-changing.

A LOFTID heat shield “can be packaged and stored in small volumes for launch and for the cruise phase of a mission,” said project manager Joe Del Corso. “We can then deploy it into orbit to decelerate heavy payloads and drop them onto the surface of any destination with an atmosphere.”

Mars is the most likely target, but the technology could also be used to land payloads on Saturn’s moon Titan and possibly even Venus. Closer to home, United Launch Alliance plans to use a variant to recover the first stage engines of the new Vulcan rocket.

Using current “rigid” structures that can fit in the nose cone of a rocket, such as those used for NASA’s current Mars rovers, “we are limited to airframe sizes of about four and a half, five meters,” he said. “That limits you to about one and a half metric tons” of landing mass.

Using scalable LOFTID technology, “we’re looking to expand it to 20 to 40 metric tons. One and a half metric tons is about the equivalent of a very well-equipped golf cart. Twenty to 40 metric tons is what you need to put people on Mars. It’s the equivalent of a small, fully furnished ranch with one car in the parking lot.”

Another advantage of rapid high-altitude deceleration is the ability to land at higher altitude locations, places where there is less atmosphere above to slow down an incoming spacecraft.

“With the deceleration high in the atmosphere, we’re able to pick and choose where we want to land,” Del Corso said. “Using conventional technology, we can only land on 50 percent of the surface of Mars. By decelerating high in the atmosphere, we can put 20 metric tons on about 85 percent of the total surface.”

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