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Chute fails again on NASA's 'flying saucer' test craft

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 9, 2015, 7:40 UTC

Sen—After a parachute failure ended the debut test flight of an experimental Mars landing system last year, NASA engineers got to work on a complete redesign, changing the shape of the massive parachute—the largest ever flown—and reinforcing the material so that even if part tore during its supersonic deployment, the rest would remain intact.

But in the end, more work is needed as NASA’s second Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, spacecraft suffered pretty much the same fate as the first. Recovery teams were on hand in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii late Monday to fish out the crashed craft from the sea, where it landed after a parachute failure cut its second test flight short.

Like last year, LDSD got off to a great start, its 300- by 400-foot helium balloon inflating as planned to gracefully carry it to an altitude of 120,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean about three hours after launch on Monday from the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.

LDSD then separated so a solid-rocket motor could ignite, catapulting the saucer-shaped vehicle up another 40,000 feet and pushing it along at about four times the speed of sound.

A doughnut-shaped extension ring then inflated, expanding the surface area of the vehicle so that it would experience more friction as it fell through the atmosphere to slow its descent.

But when, seconds later, it was time for parachute deploy, the test took a turn into the unknown.

NASA likes to look at these tests with an optimist’s eye, grateful to have the opportunity to learn what not to do before the system flies on a billion-dollar Mars mission. LDSD is part of a suite of technologies NASA is developing to try to land payloads at least twice as heavy as its one-ton Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.

“This is exactly why we do tests like this before we send things to Mars, so that we can understand exactly how they work—or don’t work—and we can improve on our designs,” said LDSD engineer Dan Coatta, who was a commentator during NASA TV’s live test coverage.

“When we’re actually ready to send spacecraft to Mars, we know that they are going to work when that big mission is on the line,” he said.

NASA is looking at augmenting the sky-crane landing system that helped guide Curiosity to a smooth touchdown in Gale Crater in August 2012. A rover of identical mass is slated to fly in 2020, but after that NASA is looking at landing a rocket-powered craft that can blast off from the Martian surface to bring samples back to Earth.

Eventually, NASA is looking at landing much heavier payloads on Mars, such as habitats and equipment to support human explorers.