NASA Developing Rotor Blades for Space Capsules

November 12, 2012, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

NASA engineers are working to make astronauts re-entry to earth a smoother journey. They are trying to attach rotary wings to a space capsule that could enable a helicopter-like motion with better control.

As of now, the space capsules that return to earth deploy a parachute, which is not as much controllable or manoeuvrable like the space shuttle orbiters. Last year, the only ever fixed winged spacecraft to fly has rested, and the current family of capsules go thorugh something of a free fall.

With rotary wings on top, NASA experts are trying to bring in a lot more of control and manoeuvrability to space capsules, once the wings are deployed after the capsule reaches the earth’s atmosphere. The blades wouldn’t use power as in a helicopter, instead would turn with due the air current passing through them as the capsule plummets down.

This is what they call as an autorotation in the case of a helicopter. In a chopper, sometimes the pilot controls his descent in a similar method if they lose an engine.

The NASA team recently tested their idea inside the huge Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “The purpose of the testing … is to study how to get the rotor starting to spin,” said NASA’s Jeff Hagen about the project.

The engineers hope that this method will provide astronauts with ability to land anywhere in the world and do so gently, instead of diving into the ocean. The commercial opportunities for orbital delivery has blasted off a new space race that is spewing forth new ideas on how best to return a capsule back to earth.

Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX and Masten Space Systems are all trying to figure out a way to return a spacecraft to a specific landing spot with the aid of rocket thrust to control and direct the descent. SpaceX is looking to develop a reusable launch vehicle- a spacecraft that could return to the original launch pad.

The team of NASA engineers is planning to do more tests outside the VAB, including a drop from a high-altitude balloon. The end result could one day have capsules bring in cargo and astronauts from the space station to earth.

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