In less than three years, astronauts will return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. As part of the Artemis Program, the purpose is not only to send crewed missions back to the lunar surface to explore and collect samples. This time around, there’s also the goal of establishing vital infrastructure (like the Lunar Gateway and a Base Camp) that will allow for “sustained lunar exploration.”
A key requirement for this ambitious plan is the provision of power, which can be difficult in regions like the South Pole-Aitken Basin – a cratered region that is permanently-shadowed. To address this, a researcher from the NASA Langley Research Center named Charles Taylor has proposed a novel concept known as “Light Bender.” Using telescope optics, this system would to capture and distribute sunlight on the Moon.
One of the greater challenges of sending payloads to Mars is having to contend with the planet’s atmosphere. While incredibly thin compared to Earth’s (with roughly half of 1% of Earth’s air pressure), the resulting air friction is still an issue for spacecraft looking to land there. And looking to the future, NASA hopes to be able to land heavier payloads on Mars as well as other planets – some of which may have atmospheres as dense as Earth.
A possible solution to this is the use of inflatable aeroshells (aka. heat shields), which offer numerous advantages over rigid ones. To develop this technology, NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) have partnered to develop an inflatable heat shield known as the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). By 2022, they hope to send this cutting-edge prototype to low-Earth orbit (LEO), where it will be tested.