Interplanetary Umbrella: New Heat Shield Could Land Bigger Payloads on Planets

NASA's Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology (ADEPT) unfolds to form a rigid heat shield called an aeroshell, potentially allowing rockets to bring along heat shields that extend to larger diameters than the rockets themselves. (Image credit: Dominic Hart/NASA Ames Research Center)

Forget packing a towel to explore the universe, as the joke from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" goes. Instead, a new planetary landing technology is more like packing an umbrella.

The NASA mission is called Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology (ADEPT). The device is completely foldable, and once unveiled, it forms a rigid heat shield called an aeroshell. NASA plans to use this technology for landing larger payloads on Mars or other locations, without the need for larger rockets — and their associated cost, expense and complication.

"This game-changing technology could squeeze a heat shield into a rocket with [the shield having] a diameter larger than the rocket itself. The design may someday deliver much larger payloads to planetary surfaces than is currently possible," NASA officials said in a statement.

ADEPT performed its first flight test yesterday (Sept. 12), launching from Spaceport America in New Mexico on an UP Aerospace suborbital SpaceLoft rocket. While the test results are still being analyzed, ADEPT was expected to unfold 60 miles (nearly 100 kilometers) above Earth in order to test the device's deployment and aerodynamic stability. It would deploy at 2,300 mph (3,700 km/h), or roughly three times the speed of sound at sea level.

"For a deployable like ADEPT, you can do ground-based testing, but ultimately, a flight test demonstrates end-to-end functionality — surviving launch environments; deploying in zero gravity and the vacuum of space; holding that rigid shape and then entering, in our case, Earth's atmosphere," Paul Wercinski, ADEPT project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said in the statement.

ADEPT heat shield unit for a flight test on Sept. 12, 2018, along with a spare. When deployed, the heat shields measure 28 inches across (70 cm), protecting a payload about the size of a three-unit cubesat (12 by 4 by 4 inches, or 30 by 10 by 10 cm). (Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center)

The aeroshell includes a carbon-fabric skin that is pulled over deployable struts and ribs. This fabric also happens to be the primary part that protects spacecraft during entry, descent and landing.

Ultimately, NASA plans to do a test for an Earth entry at a higher speed, of 17,000 mph (27 km/h), to prepare the technology for missions in the far future. Those could include trips to Venus, Mars or Saturn's moon Titan (which has a thick atmosphere, like Earth). ADEPT could also be used to send lunar samples back to Earth.

You can see more information about ADEPT at this website:

Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: