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Helicopter to catch spacecraft slowed down by inflatable shell in NASA-funded project


A concept image shows the Loftid inflatable system protecting and slowing down a spacecraft as it returns to Earth (Credit: NASA)
A concept image shows the Loftid inflatable system protecting and slowing down a spacecraft as it returns to Earth (Credit: NASA)

A helicopter will stop a space vehicle weighing up to 3.6 tonnes from plummeting into the ocean by using a hook to grab it in mid-air.

The upcoming demonstration of the mid-air retrieval by United Launch Alliance (ULA), which aims to catch vehicles four times heavier than previously possible, follows a $1.9m investment from NASA.

The US company is one of six to benefit from a total of $44m from the space agency in the third round of its ‘tipping point’ project partnerships. The announcement follows a separate $15m investment in technology, including electric aircraft, space station power systems and satellite ‘swarms’, earlier this week.

ULA’s demonstration will pair with NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (Loftid) programme. The project will inflate large aeroshells wrapped in heat shields around vehicles to cause drag in the atmosphere, decelerating them from hypersonic speeds.

Operators will transport a helicopter on board a ship to the recovery zone in the ocean. The helicopter will then fly up to meet and catch the Loftid vehicle as it decelerates from orbital velocity.

Another project from SSL will develop in-orbit refuelling technology. A space ‘tanker’ will meet active satellites and transfer xenon fuel to them, potentially adding years to their service. In-orbit service and maintenance could be a huge market in the coming years as companies seek to extend the operational lives of their spacecraft, which are expensive to launch but often last less than 10 years.

Several other programmes focus on developing cryogenic liquid propulsion, which burns super-cooled fuel to propel vehicles, and sensor systems for lunar and planetary landers.

“While these key technologies will support NASA's science and human exploration missions in the future, these awards are yet another example of NASA’s commitment to our nation's growing commercial space industry today,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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