NASA is seeking bright ideas from university and college students for landing cargo on Mars using inflatable spacecraft heat shields or hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD) technology.
The organisation has asked interested teams of 3 to 5 undergraduate and/or graduate students to submit white papers describing their concepts by November 15. Concepts may employ new approaches such as shape morphing and pneumatic actuation to dynamically alter the HIAD inflatable structure.
Selected teams will continue in the competition by submitting in the spring of 2016 full technical papers on the concept. Up to four teams will present their concepts to a panel of NASA judges at the BIG Idea Forum at Langley in April 2016.
Each finalist team will receive a USD 6,000 stipend to assist with full participation in the forum.
"NASA is currently developing and flight testing HIADs, a new class of relatively lightweight deployable aeroshells that could safely deliver more than 22 tonnes to the surface of Mars," said Steve Gaddis, Game Changing Development Programme (GCD) manager at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
"A crewed spacecraft landing on Mars would weigh between 15 and 30 tonnes," he said. The NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is the heaviest payload ever landed on the red planet, weighing in at only one tonne. To slow a vehicle carrying a significantly heavier payload through the thin Martian atmosphere and safely land it on the surface is a significant challenge.
NASA is addressing this challenge through the development of large aeroshells that can provide enough aerodynamic drag to decelerate and deliver larger payloads. HIAD technology is a leading idea because these kinds of aeroshells can also generate lift, which would allow the agency to potentially do different kinds of missions.