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Parachute glitch curtails ‘flying saucer’ test flight

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 29, 2014, 6:25 UTC

Sen—A saucer-shaped craft carrying a prototype Mars landing system floated gracefully into the sky beneath a massive helium balloon Saturday for a test run high over the Pacific Ocean.

The flight ended sooner than expected with a crash-landing into the ocean after the vehicle’s parachute failed to fully inflate.

“What we just saw was a really good test,” NASA engineer Dan Coatta, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a NASA Television broadcast.

“Everything up to (the parachute deployment) went really, really well … This is an opportunity for us to take a look at the data, learn what happened and apply that to the next test,” Coatta said.

The balloon lifted off from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility at 1840 GMT carrying the saucer-shaped Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, craft.

About 2.5 hours later, the balloon reached at altitude of 120,000 feet (36,576 meters), the drop point for LDSD to begin flying solo. The drop went well and LDSD’s rocket motor fired up to kick it up to 180,000 feet (54,900 meters) and send it soaring at Mach 4—four times the speed of sound.

That was all a warm-up for the real point of the flight, which was to test two pieces of a prototype landing system that is being designed to send heavy payloads to Mars. LDSD’s speed and the thin pressure of Earth’s stratosphere simulate what a spacecraft entering Mars’ atmosphere would experience.

“When we’re actually going to use (the landing system) for real, it’s going to be on a spacecraft, entering the atmosphere of Mars at thousands of miles per hour, so we have to come up with some way on Earth to simulate that condition in order to prove that these things work,” Coatta said.

The first landing system component tested Saturday was an innovative braking shield, shaped like a doughnut, which unfolded and inflated to burn off speed. The second system, a gigantic parachute, did not properly deploy, sending LDSD crashing into the ocean, rather than the controlled, gentle descent engineers had planned.

Recovery teams were on hand to collect whatever can be found. Saturday’s flight was the first of three planned for the program. The next flight is expected in about a year.