NASA's future spacecrafts may be able to land like helicopters
NASA scientists have designed and tested a new rotor landing system in an attempt to enable spacecrafts to land like helicopters.
The idea behind the new landing system, which was tested in the 550 foot fall Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, is to replace parachutes with spinning blades in order to enable soft and controlled landings on land instead of the ocean.
The rotor re-entry and landing system is designed for capsule-inspired spacecraft like the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle that should fly before the end of the decade, Discovery News reported.
The landing system's process is called auto-rotation, and while it's been proven on helicopters it's never been tried on spacecraft.
Currently, the engineers are facing the challenge of getting the blades deployed the right way.
There are bombs that whose fins flick open at high speed, and engineers think a similar mechanism could deploy the blades and start them spinning almost immediately. At the same time, control fins on the side of the capsule would to keep it from revolving with the blades.
Engineers are testing ways to get the rotors to start spinning with drop tests in the VAB. With the scale model capsule suspended 480 feet above the floor, engineers can use a helicopter radio-control unit to remotely change the rotors' pitch and slow the capsule's fall.
Rotors could help recover spent rocket stages as well as spacecraft. The idea is to have rotors built into the booster frame and unfurled as the stage descends to Earth, the empty rocket just as controllable as a spacecraft for a soft landing.
Future rotor re-entry test will get more complicated, eventually involving full-scale models dropped from high-altitude balloons.