NOAA finalizes secondary payload for JPSS-2 launch

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WASHINGTON — NOAA and NASA have finalized an agreement to fly a reentry technology demonstrator as the sole secondary payload on a weather satellite launch in 2022.

NOAA announced Feb. 26 that it had completed an arrangement to fly NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) as a secondary payload on the launch of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) 2 spacecraft. The satellite will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in 2022 from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

NOAA announced plans to carry LOFTID last year, but had to finalize plans for doing so. Besides ensuring that the payload wouldn’t pose a risk to JPSS-2, another issue was whether the launch would carry any other payloads. NOAA decided that LOFTID will be the only secondary payload on that mission.

“Our team looked at the cost to the government of doing the additional rideshare, the readiness and timing of the payloads available from the private sector, our NASA partners, the growing potential of the private rideshare industry to fly these types of small satellite missions, and the overall mission complexity associated with adding additional secondary payloads,” said Karen St. Germain, deputy assistant administrator for systems at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, in a statement. “Based on all of these factors, we decided that pursuing additional rideshare payloads was not a good fit for the JPSS-2 mission.”

LOFTID is designed to demonstrate reentry technologies that could ultimately be used to land large payloads on Mars. Once deployed from the rocket, LOFTID will inflate, expanding to a diameter of six meters before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA hopes to scale up LOFTID to larger sizes that could be used as part of human Mars landers. “In order to land in the atmosphere of Mars, the current technologies that are there limit you to about one and a half tons. You need about 20 tons to land for a human mission, and the technologies just don’t extrapolate well,” said Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, during a March 3 presentation at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado. A system like LOFTID, he said, could help slow down large Mars landers in the upper atmosphere, when traveling at hypersonic velocities.

Work on LOFTID is supported by a public-private partnership between NASA’s Langley Research Center and ULA, who is interested in using the technology in future efforts to recover and reuse elements of its Vulcan rocket, notably its first-stage engines.

With its six-meter dimeter, Reuter said, LOFTID “has some real capabilities for returning large downmass, potentially, but for us it’s one step along the way to getting to about a 15-meter system.”