NASA extends trial of steerable robo-stunt kite parachute

Why chase balloons for hundreds of miles when you can drop the payload outside?

NASA will soon be testing high-altitude parachute systems that let astroboffins land valuable scientific research payloads from altitudes of 60,000 feet.

The technique, using parafoils – cellular aerofoils of the same sort used to make high-performance stunt kites – will, so NASA hopes, allow it to recover scientific instruments used for high-altitude data gathering experiments without chasing balloons across vast tracts of America.

Instead of sending payloads up on research balloons and hoping the weather doesn't blow them too far off course, the parafoil method allows for payloads to be released from the balloon at around 60,000ft and then be steered back to earth for an "automatic precision landing".

The system, under evaluation by the American space agency since 2013, is the brainchild of Airborne Systems of New Jersey. The latest test programme will take the aerofoils right up to their full design altitude.

An earlier document [PDF] reveals that some flight testing up to 55,000ft has already taken place.

Other edge-of-space technologies selected by NASA for high-altitude demonstrations include: a system for monitoring how live cells react to rocket launches; an automated solar cell calibration system; a system for carrying out Parkinson's research on protein solution in the zero-G environment of space; and a system for compressing soil and pebbles (regolith) in zero gravity to see what happens to them.

"These selections allow companies and academia to demonstrate technologies of interest to NASA in a much more realistic environment than what they could get in ground-based simulation facilities," said Stephan Ord, technology manager for NASA's Flight Opportunities programme, in a canned statement. "This is a valuable platform for NASA to mature cutting-edge technologies that have the potential of supporting future agency mission needs."

Being able to drop a payload from 60,000ft on to a defined point is a great leap forward from the current situation where it's a best guess as to where the payload lands, as long-time Reg readers will recall from the early LOHAN tests in Spain.

The use of a steerable aerofoil parachute to bring the payloads back to earth is also a neat and logical extension of stunt kite technology. ®

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