Inflatable Systems Can Make Small Satellite Exploration of Other Planets Possible

Illustration of Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

LOGAN, Utah — Small satellites could explore Mars and Venus cheaply and efficiently using inflatable structures that would enable them to more easily enter orbit around these planets, according to research presented at the Small Satellite Conference on Saturday.

The spacecraft would use a technical called aerocapture in which they would skim off the outer edges of the atmospheres of Mars or Venus. An inflatable structure would deploy prior to atmospheric interface to protect the spacecraft, and then be jettisoned after the spacecraft had cleared the atmosphere. The spacecraft would then use on- board propulsion to adjust its orbit around the planet.

Aerocapture would allow small satellites to explore Mars and Venus without the extra mass and expense of large propulsion system needed to place them into orbit, according to Shelly Mann, a Ph.D candidate in aerospace engineering at Old Dominion University. Small satellites could be built more quickly and inexpensively than the large spacecraft now launched on planetary missions.

Mann presented the results of a study that she and other researchers conducted while she was an intern at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Artist’s concept of hypersonic inflatable aeroshell and technologies suitable for returning mass from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Mann’s work builds on technology that NASA has been developing for over a decade. HIADs, which stands for Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators, are envisioned as low-mass heat shields that could return large payloads to Earth or deliver them to the surface of Mars.

NASA has previous tested HIAD technology using sounding rockets. The space agency plans to launch the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) reentry system later this year. LOFTID is scheduled to launch no earlier than Nov. 1, 2022 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V as a secondary payload with the Joint Polar Surveyor System-2, a polar-orbiting weather satellite.

“LOFTID is demonstrating a large aeroshell — 6 meters in diameter or about 20 feet — entry from low-Earth orbit, to demonstrate this technology in conditions relevant to many potential applications,” NASA said in a press release.

Mann said the study she conducted used HIAD test results to model how inflatable systems could be used with small satellites to expand planetary missions.

“With these promising results, this study suggests that SmallSat-sized HIADs are feasible for interplanetary science missions and are worth of further exploration,” Mann said.

Additional destinations beyond Venus and Mars should be considered, she added. A higher-level concept review is needed to refine the inflatable structure and identify system components.