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NASA Flying Saucer: Will It Help Us Reach Mars Sooner Than Expected?

nasaNASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project, known as flying saucer, was tested and a saucer-shaped test vehicle was put into near-space last month from Kauai island in Hawaii.

The first of the three experimental flight tests of the project was meant to determine if the balloon-launched, rocket-powered, saucer-shaped, design could reach the altitudes and airspeeds needed to test two new breakthrough technologies destined for future Mars missions.

The new technique will reduce the speed of spacecraft on landing on planets like Mars. On landing, the new technique makes it possible to reduce the spacecraft’s speed from four times the speed of sound to slightly more than half, at two and a half times the speed of sound.

The new reduced landing speed will be crucial for future Curiosity landings on Mars.

Carried as payload during the shakeout flight were two cutting-edge technologies scheduled to be tested next year aboard this same type of test vehicle. The Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) is a large, doughnut-shaped air brake that deployed during the flight, helping slow the vehicle from 3.8 to 2 times the speed of sound.

The second, the Supersonic Disksail Parachute, is the largest supersonic parachute ever flown. It has more than double the area of the parachute which was used for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission that carried the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars.

“A good test is one where there are no surprises but a great test is one where you are able to learn new things, and that is certainly what we have in this case.” said Ian Clark, principal investigator for LDSD at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Our test vehicle performed as advertised. The SIAD and ballute, which extracted the parachute, also performed beyond expectations. We also got significant insight into the fundamental physics of parachute inflation. We are literally re-writing the books on high-speed parachute operations, and we are doing it a year ahead of schedule” he said.

Hitching a ride aboard the 7,000-pound saucer were several high-definition video cameras. The arresting imagery is providing the engineers and scientists on the LDSD project with never before seen insights into the dynamics involved with flying such a vehicle at high altitudes and Mach numbers.

“As far as I am concerned, whenever you get to ride shotgun on a rocket-powered flying saucer, it is a good day,” said Clark. “We hope the video will show everyone how beautiful and awesome the test was, and to just to give folks an insight into what experimental flight test is all about.”

The device, officially named Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, imitates the rapid inflation technique of the Hawaiian puffer fish, and is part of Nasa’s attempts to try and protect its spacecraft during landings in space.


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