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NASA's 'flying saucer' lifts off for Mars landing test flight

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 29, 2014, 3:22 UTC

Sen—A prototype NASA system for landing heavy payloads on Mars began ascending into the sky beneath a massive helium balloon Saturday for a test run high over the Pacific Ocean.

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.

Once in position 120,000 feet (36,576 meters) above the ocean, the LDSD will be released from the balloon to begin a 40-minute test flight. First, a rocket motor will fire to boost LDSD’s speed to Mach 4 – four times the speed of sound – and raise its altitude to 180,000 feet (54,900 meters).

The vehicle’s speed and the thin pressure of Earth’s stratosphere are designed to simulate what a spacecraft entering Mars’ atmosphere would experience.

LDSD holds two systems designed to burn off speed and land heavy payloads on Mars—a inflatable, doughnut-shaped decelerator and a massive parachute.

So far, the heaviest craft that has landed on Mars was the one-tonne Curiosity rover, which used a trio of landing system including a flying “sky crane” platform to touch down in August 2012.

NASA is looking to land bigger payloads, including eventually human habitats.

“If you used the same braking system that we used on Curiosity, it would be a little bit like pulling the brakes out of  Mini Cooper and just sticking them into a semi-truck and hoping that they’ll work,” NASA engineer Dan Coatta, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a live broadcast of the LDSD test on NASA Television.

LDSD’s parachute, for example, is more than twice the area of the one used during Curiosity’s landing.

The balloon ride to the stratosphere is expected to take about three hours.