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NASA testing 'flying saucer' to land heavy payloads on Mars

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 3, 2014, 14:42 UTC

Sen—Plunging through the atmosphere of Mars is not for the faint of heart. The planet’s thin atmosphere, which is just 1 per cent of Earth’s, does not have much cushioning for incoming spacecraft to skim off speed and avoid a mission-ending crash on the ground.

The problem gets worse as the payloads get heavier. So far, the most massive spacecraft to land on Mars was NASA’s one-tonne Curiosity rover, which used a trio of landing systems, including a flying “sky crane” platform, to settle itself inside Gale Crater in August 2012.

Human missions to Mars will require much beefier landing systems, capable of placing up to 40 tonnes on the planet's surface. 

“We can’t do 20- to 40 tonnes to Mars in one step,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology.

A first step is expected this week when NASA tests a supplemental Mars landing system called  the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD.

The saucer-shaped prototype will be flown to Earth’s upper atmosphere by a huge helium balloon. Once it reaches an altitude of about 120,000 feet (36,576 meters)—about four times higher than where commercial jets fly—LDSD will be released.

Four small rocket motors will then fire to spin and stabilize the saucer before a solid-fuel booster kicks in to catapult the vehicle to the edge of the stratosphere.

NASA flying saucer

A saucer-shaped test vehicle is shown in the Missile Assembly Building at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The goal is to get to an altitude and velocity that simulates what a spacecraft entering Mars' atmosphere would encounter, said lead researcher Ian Clark, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The saucer should top out at 180,000 feet (54,864 meters) and a maximum speed of Mach 4 before it begins to fall back through the atmosphere. When it reaches Mach 3.8, the first of two new braking systems will be deployed for testing. The first is an inflatable doughnut-shaped structure called the supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R), which is designed to expand an entering spacecraft’s size, and hence increase its atmospheric drag.

The second system is a new supersonic parachute—the largest ever flown—which will deploy when the saucer reaches Mach 2.5.

If all goes well, LDSD will splash down in the Pacific Ocean 45 minutes later.  The test is being conducted at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.  Two more test flights are planned for next year.

“Regardless of the outcome, we know we will learn many important things about this technology,” Gazarik told reporters during a pre-launch press conference on Monday.

NASA is looking to fly the experiment as early as Thursday, though weather conditions must be ideal to launch the balloon. Mission updates are available on the project’s website.