ULA and NASA test inflatable heat shield on Atlas launch from California

JPSS-2 Atlas Deployment of LOFTID inflatable heat shield test

Early November 10, ULA launched an Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Station. The mission carried JPSS-2 and an inflatable decelerator to prove the systems to and gather data on this unique type of heat shield.

JPSS-2 mission

JPSS-2, the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, is a collaborative project between the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.

As these satellites race around Earth, they take measurements and snap images that help us plan for hurricanes, snowstorms and floods. They map and monitor wildfires and volcanoes.

They closely watch our oceans, spotting harmful algal blooms and measuring sea surface temperatures and sea ice. They provide critical data to global weather models. They tell us about the things that fill up our air and our lungs, like dust, smoke and smog.


The Atlas V rocket launching the satellite took flight at 1:49 a.m. Pacific Time (4:49 a.m. ET) on Thursday morning. While JPSS was successfully launched, the solar arrays have not deployed as expected.

LOFTID heat shield test

Joining the weather satellite on the rocket was the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator. After the deployment of JPSS, the second stage of the rocket changed its trajectory, and the LOFTID payload separated and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.

It splashed down off the coast of Hawaii and was recovered.

By all outside appearances, the test appeared to be a success, but teams will need to do extensive data review and inspections of the hardware.

ULA hopes to use an inflatable heat shield design to recover and reuse the BE-4 engines on the upcoming Vulcan rocket. In addition to the potential for this test to help prove inflatable heat shields for engine recovery, it is possible inflatable heat shields could serve an essential role landing on Mars. An inflatable heat shield removes the size limitation of a rocket’s fairings – allowing a larger heat shield to slow down a payload even further as it enters the atmosphere. “That translates into allowing not only heavier payloads, but also landing at higher altitudes.”

“The NASA and ULA public-private LOFTID partnership was the ideal pairing opportunity for demonstrating our Vulcan reuse plans,” said Mark Peller, ULA vice president of Major Development. “This demonstration allows ULA to focus on launch integration applications for engine recovery including parachute development, transportation and recovery, flight environments, precision navigation for landing and recovery and more.”

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