Engineers at Nasa’s Langley Research Center in Hampton are developing a doughnut-shaped inflatable heat shield for spacecraft to land it on Mars.
The inflatable heat shield could help the craft to slow down as it enters the thinner Martian atmosphere and reach southern plains and other areas of Mars that cannot be accessed using existing technology.
Called the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, the shield could be similar to a stacking ring of donuts.
Each segment of the shield will be filled with nitrogen and covered with a thermal blanket of layers of heat-resistant materials.
Langley Research Center materials and structures for hypersonic re-entry principal investigator Anthony Calomino said: “The idea is that you would have something that could be packed up, put in a very small volume and then deployed into a very large size.”
Once deployed, the heat shield will sit atop the spacecraft, resembling a giant mushroom.
Langley Research Center advanced entry, descent and landing systems senior engineer Neil Cheatwood was quoted by Associated Press as saying: “We try to not use propulsion if we don’t have to.
“We make use of that atmosphere as much as we can, because it means we don’t have to carry all that fuel with us.”
In 2012, Nasa successfully tested an inflatable heat shield at hypersonic speeds up to 7,600mph.
Langley Research Center director Lesa Roe earlier said: “We are pushing the boundaries with this flight. We look forward to future test launches of even bigger inflatable aeroshells.”
Nasa engineers have been working on the new technology for around a decade and are close to put it into operation.
Cheatwood said that the technology could be used to explore other planets or objects with atmospheres, including Venus, Titan and Jupiter.