Yes, you read that correctly: NASA is developing a landing craft that looks like a flying saucer that just may be the key to landing astronauts on Mars. Officially known as the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), the craft is fully assembled and scheduled for its first test on June 3.
So, how can an inflatable flying saucer help land astronauts on Mars?
For NASA, the biggest challenge to landing on Mars is slowing the incoming craft to a safe speed before landing. How fast is an incoming lander traveling as it hits the Martian atmosphere? Try a blazing 12,000mph. How long does it have to slow down? Six minutes, which is not a lot of time considering that, at peak speed, the lander is traveling at about 200 miles a minute.
In the past, the Martian landers have used a two-step method, first by retro rockets and then by either inflatable air bags, which enclose the lander and allow it to bounce across the Martian surface to its final destination (1997's Sojourner and 2004's Spirit and Opportunity rovers) or by sky crane, which lowers the lander from a platform held aloft by retro rockets (2012's Curiosity).
Unfortunately, these methods are pretty much maxed out in terms of what they can do as many doubted that the sky crane on the 1-ton Curiosity woulds even work. Obviously, to land humans on Mars, one would need a vehicle much heavier than a ton, which is where the impetus for the LDSD came into play.
The idea for the mission: a combination of a 100-foot parachute and an inflatable ring around the base of the entry craft can combine to slow the incoming speed of a payload larger than the retro rockets and parachute of the previous landers.
As for the test itself, it will take place on June 3 at a height of about 34 miles, which is as close on Earth as one can get to simulating the thin martian atmosphere. NASA plans to offer a live web stream of the event, too.
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