NASA is planning a series of test flights near Hawaii with their new flying saucer in June. The saucer is testing a new batch of supersonic aids to help heavier payloads survive the six minutes of terror and safely descend through the thin Martian atmosphere.
The rocket-powered saucer is formally named the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), and is absolutely not an unidentified flying object. It's currently at U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, undergoing testing before its experimental flight test on June 3rd.
In June, a balloon will haul the vehicle up to 120,000 feet, then drop it. Booster rockets will quickly kick in to bounce it up another 60,000 feet at Mach 4, levelling off at the rarified air at an altitude of 180,000 feet. High above the Pacific, it will deploy the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), an extremely fancy name for an inflatable Kevlar tube that will surround the saucer. After that, it will release the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute, a mammoth parachute.
Rocket sled mimicking the forces the LDSD will feel under supersonic conditions.
Both bits of technology have been individually tested by a crazy pulley system hauled by a rocket sled earlier this year. While the SIAD test was fine, the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute test didn't go exactly as planned with the parachute ripping under the ridiculous winds.
Why so high? The technology on this saucer is bound for Mars with its far thinner atmosphere. The six minutes of terror that mark every mission to the Red Planet have relied on the same basic parachute technology for decades, and it's time for an upgrade. To find a similar environment on Earth requires heading up to the upper edge of the stratosphere, with atmosphere thin enough to test the efficacy of the new materials and designs.
Testing communication frequencies between the saucer, balloon, and testing range.
With a bit of luck, the June 3rd test will be live-streamed, with low-resolution images of the saucer dropping away from the balloon-mothership, rocketing up to the stratosphere, then deploying its decceleration aids to slow back down and avoid slamming into the ocean at supersonic speeds.
Engineer working on the Parachute Deployment Device, a mortar-fired ballute.
The inflatable tubes span a 6 or 8 meter diameter, increasing drag in the atmosphere to slow a spacecraft from supersonic speeds greater than Mach 3.5 down to the still-ferocious Mach 2. After that, the mammoth parachute deploys. Mammoth is entirely the right adjective: a 14.4 meter ballute (a balloon-parachute hybrid) will be fired from its can by a mortar, and drag out the full 30.5 meter (110 feet) diameter parachute. The parachute will hopefully drop the craft's velocity from Mach 2 by more than a thousand miles per hour down to a relatively-reasonable 175 miles per hour. After that, the individual spacecraft can take over with rockets for the final bit of braking to avoid a crash-landing.
Both the tubes and the parachute are the largest of their kind ever tested at supersonic speeds, so big that they defy squeezing into a mundane test chamber. Will they work? The engineering team is cautiously optimistic. Ian Clark, the principle investigator, explains:
"We are pushing the envelope on what we know. We are accepting higher risk with these test flights than we would with a space mission, such as the Mars Science Laboratory. We will learn a great deal even if these tests, conducted here in Earth's atmosphere at relatively low cost, fail to meet some of the mission objectives."
If it all works, these new systems would represent a major upgrade in our landing capacity for Mars. With the first major advancement in parachutes since the 1970s and the Viking craft, this combination of decceleration technology would dramatically increase the payload we can safely land on Mars from 1.5 metric tons to 2 or even 3 metric tons.
Why, of course NASA made another video explaining the whole testing sequence:
Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. For more prototypes under development for future Mars missions, learn about Morpheus and the autonomous hazard detection and avoidance system. Testing balloons in Antarctica look a bit too much like alien spacecraft. And, despite appearances, coronal cavities and coronal holes are also not evidence of aliens.