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NASA flies 'flying saucer' to test Mars landing technologies

LDSD in flight
LDSD in flightNASA (publc domain)

NASA announced on Saturday the results of a test of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is the skies over the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. The LDSD is designed to test technologies to land large, heavy payloads on Mars. Early indications are that the results of the test were decidedly mixed.

“Initial indications are that the vehicle successfully flew its flight test profile as planned, and deployed the two landing technologies. The first is a doughnut-shaped tube called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), with early indications that it deployed as expected. The second is an enormous parachute (the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute). Imagery downlinked in real-time from the test vehicle indicates that the parachute did not deploy as expected.”

The LDSD lifted off attached to a balloon early Saturday morning Hawaii time. When it reached 120,000 feet, the flying saucer shaped craft dropped from the balloon and switched on rocket engines to simulate an approach and descent to the Martian surface. After deploying the SIAD, designed to decelerate the craft in the thin air of the upper atmosphere, similar to the Martian atmosphere, and then the parachutes, the LDSD splashed down in the Pacific in the late morning local time. NASA engineers are evaluating the results of the engineering test flight.

The first of three test flights is designed to address a problem NASA faces in landing large objects on planetary surfaces like Mars. The largest payload that has landed on the Red Planet so far is the Mars Curiosity Rover. It required an elaborate landing system that included retro rockets, a parachute, and a sky crane. Mars Curiosity represents the upper limit to what can be achieved with current technology.

In order to land people in Mars, NASA will have to find a way to land payloads the size and weight of a small house. This is because the first people on Mars will be obliged to live there for many months under most mission scenarios. The habitat that lands on Mars will have everything, including living space, that astronauts will need to survive on the Red Planet, That is why NASA is spending $150 million to test landing technologies two decades before most people contemplate a Mars mission.