Title of Presentation: Aerocapture Technology Developments from NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Technology (ISPT) Program

Primary (Corresponding) Author: Michelle M. Munk,

Organization of Primary Author: NASA Langley Research Center

Co-Authors: Steven A. Moon


Abstract:  Since 2001, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has been investing in technologies that can decrease the mass, cost, and trip times associated with planetary science mission propulsion systems, through the In-Space Propulsion Technology (ISPT) Program.  A high-priority technology within the ISPT portfolio is Aerocapture, which is using the atmosphere of a body to slow an incoming spacecraft and place it into a useful science orbit.  Aerocapture can save hundreds of kilograms of propellant mass compared to traditional orbit capture methods, allowing the vehicle to carry more science payload, to be injected using a smaller launch vehicle, or to inject at a higher energy and reach its destination faster. 

ISPT Aerocapture investments have yielded significant, flight-ready products that are applicable to aerocapture, direct entry, and sample return missions.  This paper will explain the investment strategy, the role of detailed systems analysis, and the hardware and modeling developments that have resulted from the last 5 years of work.  The Principal Investigators for the tasks resulting from NASA Research Announcements are from Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Applied Research Associates, Inc., Ball Aerospace, and NASA’s Ames Research Center and Langley Research Center.  Accomplishments include improved understanding of entry aerothermal environments, particularly at Titan, demonstration of aerocapture guidance algorithm robustness at multiple bodies, manufacture and test of a 2-meter Carbon-Carbon “hot structure,” development and test of evolutionary, high-temperature structural systems with efficient ablative materials, understanding of three distinct inflatable decelerator systems, and development of vehicle performance sensors that will fly on the Mars Science Laboratory in 2009.  Due in large part to this sustained ISPT support for Aerocapture, the technology is ready to be validated in flight.