NASA
The foldable heat shield will allow for larger planetary mission spacecraft.

At Spaceport America in New Mexico, a test version of the umbrella-like shield called Adaptable Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT) was one of NASA three technology demonstrators sent on a suborbital trajectory by a sounding rocket as part of UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft 12 mission.

The new technology can be stored like a folded umbrella inside smaller rockets, opening handle-up in space to protect larger payloads as they enter a planet’s atmosphere, said Brandon Smith, Nasa’s principal investigator on the project. The shape allows it to protect larger areas than current heat shields.

“At the larger scales, it could be used for something as grand as human Mars explorations, or potentially human cargo landings on Mars,”

– Brandon Smith, Nasa’s principal investigator on the project, told Reuters at the Spaceport America launch site, about 80km north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Until now, heat shields were static components of a spacecraft. The entire rest of the spacecraft typically has to be built with the heat shield in mind, and that puts some serious limits on how a manned ship could be designed. With a deployable shield, the ship can essentially be whatever its designers want it to be, and the shield can be deployed to do its job whenever it’s needed. This is what makes this new heatshield technology a potential game changer.

NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart
Twin ADEPT units include a flight unit for the first flight test on Sept. 12 and a spare

The Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology or ‘ADEPT’ system consists of a woven carbon fabric “skin” stretched over an articulated frame. That frame folds up, so the system could take up less space than conventional heat shields. NASA says that opens up the possibility of designing rockets with much bigger payloads. The test units are 28 inches in diameter when deployed.

ADEPT, launched with a Spaceloft suborbital rocket made by UP Aerospace, was tested at the spaceport in southern New Mexico. It deployed between 100 and 120 kilometers before opening and making its way back to Earth, landing at White Sands Missile Range. Data gathered from the test will not be available until the shield is recovered, officials said. The system, once implemented, will allow NASA to send more complex missions to other planets.

Before Nasa can send humans to Mars, it will need to land a lot of cargo there and the new heat shield could help, if it works, Smith said. The system also could also be used with crew capsules, protecting astronauts. NASA is preparing to send a new rover robotic lander to Mars in 2020 and plans to send human astronauts in 2033.

The rover will search for signs of previous life on Mars and demonstrate technology that could help astronauts survive there. The U.S. goal of sending humans to Mars was set in 2010 during the administration of President Barack Obama and was affirmed by President Donald Trump last December.