New NASA gear that could help humanity set up an outpost on Mars has gotten its first test flight.
The space agency launched its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) test vehicle Saturday (June 28) from Hawaii. Although the first part of the test went well, the vehicle's huge parachute apparently failed to deploy properly — but LDSD engineers are pleased anyway.
"We are thrilled about yesterday's test," Mark Adler, LDSD project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Sunday (June 29). "The test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives. We have recovered all the vehicle hardware and data recorders and will be able to apply all of the lessons learned from this information to our future flights." [NASA's Inflatable Flying Saucer for Mars Landings (Photos)]
Saturday's test — which lifted off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai at 2:45 p.m. EDT (1845 GMT; 8:45 a.m. local Hawaii time) — was designed to help NASA engineers get their first good look at how equipment designed to slow the descent of heavy spacecraft through the Red Planet's atmosphere performs at high speeds in Mars-like conditions.
The flight was originally scheduled for June 3, but poor weather conditions pushed it back multiple times, causing a delay of nearly a month.
New Tech's First Flight
The LDSD project is developing and testing a 100-foot-wide (30.5 meters) parachute — the biggest supersonic chute ever flown — and two saucer-like devices called Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators, or SIADs.
One SIAD is 20 feet (6 m) wide, while the other measures 26 feet (8 m) across. Both devices are built to fit around the rim of atmospheric entry vehicles like the one that carried NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in August 2012, slowing them down by increasing their drag.
During Saturday's test, a huge balloon carried the 7,000-lb. (3,175 kilograms) test vehicle, which was equipped with the big chute and the 20-foot SIAD, up to an altitude of 23 miles (37 kilometers). The balloon dropped the craft at that point, and its onboard rocket motor kicked on, boosting it to Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound) and 34 miles up (55 km) if all went according to plan.