A satellite intended to improve weather forecasting and an experimental inflatable heat shield to protect spacecraft entering atmospheres were launched into space from California on Thursday.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 satellite and the NASA test payload lifted off at 1:49 a.m. from Vandenberg Space Force Base, northwest of Los Angeles.
Developed for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, JPSS-2 was placed into an orbit that circles the Earth from pole to pole, joining previously launched satellites in a system designed to improve weather forecasting and climate monitoring.
Mission officials say it represents the latest technology and will increase precision of observations of the atmosphere, oceans and land.
After releasing the satellite, the rocket's upper stage was to reignite to position the test payload for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere and descent into the Pacific Ocean.
Called LOFTID, short for Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, the device is an “aeroshell” that could be used to slow and protect heavy spacecraft descending into atmospheres, such as those of Mars or Venus, or payloads returning to Earth.
According to NASA, effectively slowing heavy spacecraft will require greater atmospheric drag than can be created by traditional rigid heat shields that fit within the shrouds that surround payloads aboard rockets.
The LOFTID aeroshell inflates to about 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter.
In the thin atmosphere of Mars, for example, having such a large aeroshell would begin slowing the vehicle at higher altitudes and reduce the intensity of heating, according to the space agency.
The aeroshell was expected to impact the ocean a few hundred miles east of Hawaii, where a vessel was waiting. NASA hoped to recover the aeroshell as well as a data recorder that was to be ejected before splashdown.
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