NASA and United Launch Alliance have agreed to send an inflatable heat shield in low Earth orbit by 2021 or 2022 to test the potential of such technology to support engine retrieval and cargo delivery missions, SpaceFlight Now reported Monday.
As part of the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator joint effort, ULA will launch the nearly 20-foot heat shield to demonstrate its ability to recover engines from the Vulcan rocket slated to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in late 2021.
The decelerator will support ULA’s plans to begin engine retrieval operations in 2024 and potentially assist in the delivery of large cargo such as rovers, landers and habitats to the Martian surface.
NASA and ULA also want to launch the heat shield as the Atlas V vehicle’s secondary payload along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 weather platform in early 2022.
The company received a $1.9M contract last year to deploy the LOFTID platform in support of NASA's mid-air retrieval demonstrations.