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NASA preps its donut-shaped decelerator for manned missions

It will protect future missions with heavy payload from the heat of atmospheric entry.

NASA wants to make sure that the decelerator replacing parachutes in future deep space missions can withstand packing, compression and extreme conditions. That's why the agency created a small-scale version of the latest Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator or HIAD design to make sure it can tolerate the packing process. NASA personnel used a vacuum pump to squeeze the 9-foot diameter donut-shaped inflatable into a small space. They then packed and unpacked it several times, checking its Zylon and Teflon materials for tears in between each round.

NASA is working on HIAD, because it expects future missions -- especially manned ones -- to be significantly heavier. See, a parachute safely got the one-ton Curiosity rover through the Martian atmosphere, but a spacecraft with astronauts and their supplies in it could weigh as much as 30 tons. The agency needs a design that can slow down a vehicle's descent, which will, in turn, protect it from the intense heat it will encounter when it enters the Martian (or any planet's) atmosphere. HIAD lead engineer Keith Johnson said that the small test donut contained all the components for the latest design. That means they can now build a larger version and put that one to the test, as well.

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