NASA ‘saucer’ launched & Ended: NASA Launches Flying Saucer
Published: June 9, 2015
NASA ‘saucer’ launched & Ended: NASA Launches Flying Saucer, Nasa today launched an inflatable ‘flying saucer’ into the thin air above the Pacific Ocean – but the test ended in disappointment.
Dubbed the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), the radical craft is hoped to someday be used as a supersonic brake to help humans land on Mars.
That dream took a hit today after the parachute that was supposed to bring the saucer to a gentle splashdown shredded in the vacuum of space.
Earlier today, a giant weather balloon carried the LDSD to an altitude of 120,000ft (36,600 metres) above Hawaii – or three times the height of a passenger plane.
The flying saucer was released at 5.35pm EDT and a booster rocket took it to Mach 4 – which is four times the speed of sound – at a height of 180,000ft (54,860 metres).
But soon after, the supersonic parachute failed to deploy, ripping apart in the process. Groans of disappointment could be heard at Nasa’s mission control.
The parachute is described as the ‘the largest parachute in the world’ and is twice as big as the one that carried the Curiosity rover to Mars.
Without a parachute to slow it down, the saucer made a dramatic splashdown moments later in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
The LDSD is unique in its design, using a donut-shaped inflatable decelerator to create atmospheric drag.
When attached to the exterior of a capsule travelling at Mach 4 it will be capable of slowing it down to Mach 2, where a regular parachute can then deploy.
Last June, to simulate the Martian atmosphere on Earth, the LDSD was lifted to a height of 23 miles (37km) by a high-altitude balloon.
A small rocket then launched it 11 miles (18km) higher.
As this point the LDSD inflated around a larger saucer-shaped object, bringing it safely back to land in open water.
Throughout the test flight, Nasa beamed back live imagery using several on board cameras.
‘You get to see all the same video I do, at the same time I do,’ said Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
‘This year’s test is centered on how our newly-designed supersonic parachute will perform. We think we have a great design ready for the challenge.
‘But the proof is in the pudding and the pudding will be made live for everyone to see.’
Four cameras aboard the test vehicle provided the LDSD mission team with different perspectives on the test.
Two of the cameras showed views of the rim of the test vehicle and the performance of the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD).
A third camera showed the rocket motor firing, with Earth’s horizon spinning in the background, along with the deployment of the parachute’s lanyards.
Essentially a parachute, the LDSD is large – 15ft (4.6 metres) wide and weighing 7,000lbs (3.200kg) – in order to cope with the atmosphere of Mars.
Earth has a reasonably thick atmosphere, so we can parachute relatively easily to the surface.
But the Martian atmosphere is much thinner, so parachutes need to be much larger in order to create sufficient drag to land safely.
The system is designed to land large vehicles on the surface of Mars.
The Curiosity rover, for example, needed an innovative landing method due to its size but this technology wasn’t ready yet.
Instead, to land the rover on the surface Nasa developed a landing mechanism that used rockets known as the ‘sky crane’.
The LDSD, however, is an alternative way to reach the surface that will be able to land things that are bigger than Curiosity, such as equipment for a manned mission or humans themselves.
There will be four tests of the LDSD in total before mission managers decide whether to employ it on future Mars missions.
In a test last year, in June 2014, the vehicle was partially successful – although a parachute was torn apart when it deployed, owing to the high forces.
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