NASA Called College Students to Develop an Inflatable Heat Shield

NASA Heat Shield Technology. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. License: CC BY 2.0.

Who is NASA going to hire to create a vital component for an upcoming Mars mission? None other than the bright minds of our future – college and university students.

That’s right! NASA’s Game Changing Development Program gave college students the chance to come up with unique ideas to generate lift. Sure, that’s a fairly simple request, but your ideas will be used on cutting-edge, amazing spacecraft.

NASA is currently testing inflatable heat shields and HIAD (hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator) technology, but it needs your help to develop it.

A Weighty Issue

NASA is still in the testing phase of the new HIAD technology. Recently, it packed a 9-foot inflatable torus (donut shape) into a rocket using a vacuum pump. The inflatables will need to fit into this tight space in order to be ready for launch. Three trials were done as engineers checked for leaks.

Each time, the test torus was packed the exact same way. This was to see how it folded and compressed – this information will be essential to the space mission. In space, it will be stored and deployed, so there must be a concrete method of packing it in.

Thanks to the successful testing, NASA is ready to test the technology on a larger scale. Not only will it be able to fit into a full-size rocket, but it will be heat-resistant.

What’s the purpose of all these tests? HIADs will allow safe deliveries of extremely heavy equipment to Mars – more than 22 tons. To give you a sense of perspective, a spacecraft with its crew weighs anywhere from 15 to 30 tons.

The heaviest thing NASA has sent to Mars is the Curiosity rover, and that was only 1 ton. Using the HIADs’ large aeroshells will ideally slow an incoming heavy vehicle enough to land it safely. That’s where NASA wants your ideas to come into play – it essentially wants you to help land a heavy spacecraft on the red planet.

Ideas in Action

This call-out is part of the BIG Idea Challenge, which is an acronym for Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-Changing. It’s an initiative to engage the young intellect of America by fostering an interest in astronomy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a budding mathematician, computer scientist or physicist – if you love space, you’re already halfway there.

Although it is too late to enter, it’s a very interesting process. Entrants needed a team of three to five undergraduate and/or graduate students that described their idea in a white paper. Any new concept was considered, whether it involved pneumatic actuation, shape morphing or something even NASA hasn’t considered yet.

Teams have been selected to advance in the contest and will be required to submit full technical specifications in this spring. NASA recently chose four teams to give presentations at Langley Air Force Base in April. Teams will present at the BIG Idea Forum to a panel of judges.

Each finalist team receives a $6,000 stipend for the BIG Idea Forum. The winners of the challenge will receive a paid internship at Langley, working alongside the GCD crew to develop their winning concept.

NASA heat shield technology. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. License: CC BY 2.0.