A new prototype capsule called the ‘Maraia Earth Return Capsule’ (MERC) looks to be the next big thing for sending and returning supplies and research to astronauts at the International Space Station and potentially beyond. Rather than having to wait for a return mission to earth to bring back supplies, the goal of the MERC, and capsules like it, is to be able to return biological samples and other small payloads from space quickly and cheaply. This will allow for more regular and quicker receiving of samples for researchers which will in turn speed up our knowledge and understanding of space and the universe.
The capsule is essentially a small domed cylinder that can withstand the fast and hot re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The Capsule is currently in testing, and now has two successful tests under it’s belt. The first test took place in Tillamook, Oregon. A High altitude weather balloon carried the capsule to an altitude of 20 miles or 101, 400 feet on June 21 2015.
NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program funded the flight test for the new type of orbital entry return capsule aboard one of the program’s providers, Near Space Corporation’s (NSC) high-altitude balloon. The Flight Opportunities Program procures flights on proven commercial suborbital platforms to flight-test space technologies of interest to NASA.
The capsule tested in June was developed by Terminal Velocity Aerospace (TVA) in Atlanta, Georgia. Being released from such a high altitude allows for the capsule to descended at a velocity similar to what it would experience during an actual entry from space. The flight of the capsule demonstrated mission-enabling technologies including low-cost communication and electronic systems, along with a stem cell sample return experiment that was aboard the capsule.
“This launch is critical to ensuring that we have fast, safe, reliable and affordable ways to return important science back to Earth. Small entry capsules like Terminal Velocity’s will allow scientific samples from the International Space Station, or more distant destinations like an asteroid, to return to Earth more regularly, which will provide researchers the samples quicker.” – Paul De Leon, a campaign manager for the program from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California
Seen in the video above, the MERC capsule was tested more recently in November of 2015. This test actually deployed the capsule from orbit. Being launched on a UP Aerospace Rocket, it reach a height of 75 miles over Spaceport America in New Mexico and touched down about 30 miles down range from the original take of location. This is the 10th successful rocket launch for UP Aerospace, and their first one actually carrying a contracted payload for NASA.
Another successful test like this means that these capsules are going to become a viable way to not only return, but also to send materials to space. Being able to be launched to space on a small inexpensive rocket such as UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft, MERC’s can be sent up when supplies need to be returned. This cuts out having to work around larger rockets schedule’s. Then, once in space, it’s essentially cost free to send it back.