Science

Last stop, Mars: NASA preps its 'flying saucer' craft for test flight

NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator craft on a crane at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

Above: NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator craft on a crane at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s next big leap toward Mars exploration missions is set for tomorrow, when it plans to launch a saucer-shaped vehicle into the sky at supersonic speeds.

The technology in NASA‘s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) vehicle is key to help the agency land large payloads on Mars, which has an atmosphere 99% thinner than Earth’s — making it difficult to slow down incoming spacecraft. NASA has equipped the LSDS with a 100-foot-wide parachute and a balloon-like device capable of rapid inflation, a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD).

Those are the two technologies NASA aims to test tomorrow afternoon when it launches the LDSD from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. It originally planned to test the LDSD yesterday, but the weather proved uncooperative.

To duplicate the thin Martian atmosphere, NASA will bring its LDSD craft to 120,000 feet with a giant helium balloon (and we mean giant: fully deployed, it’s 34 million cubic feet, bigger than an entire football stadium). Then the balloon will detach and a rocket motor will kick in, boosting the craft to 180,000 feet — and to the supersonic speeds required to test the SIAD. When the vehicle hits Mach 4, the 20-foot SIAD will inflate, increasing the craft’s surface area and slowing it to about Mach 2.5 — a speed at which it’s safe to deploy a supersonic parachute. Finally, everything will touch down into the ocean, where NASA will recover the craft and its equipment.

At least, that’s how NASA envisions the test. The agency notes that it’s a risky mission with unproven technologies. But whether or not the test is successful, NASA will gather extremely valuable data — and it’s thrilled to take the LDSD out for a spin.

“After years of imagination, engineering, and hard work, we soon will get to see our Keiki o ka honua, our ‘boy from Earth,’ show us its stuff,” Mark Adler, LDSD project manager, said in a statement.

And, luckily for us, we can watch the whole thing from the comfort of our desks.

More information:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) boldly goes where no one has gone before. The federal agency's Aeronautics division conducts research on new flight technologies while its Exploration Systems works on human and robo... read more »

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