NASA Claims a Successful Test for Its Warehouse-Sized, Mars-Bound Parachute

The agency's "flying saucer" landing system debuts 200,000 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

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Jun 29 2014, 9:13pm
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After several weeks of delays due to inclement weather above the Pacific Ocean, NASA finally managed to test its parachute of the future yesterday. And it worked.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is designed to help safely land the multi-ton payloads required for a manned mission to Mars, which humanity has evidently decided is the Next Place to check out.

Strapped to what NASA spin-masters called a "flying saucer," LDSD made its debut about 200,000 feet above the Earth, after being floated up to 120,00 feet via a large balloon. “We picked the test vehicle because it will simulate the re-entry vehicle [on Mars],” NASA Ian Clark, the LDSD project’s principal investigator explained during a media conference call. It will replicate those conditions, he said.

Then, after being released from the balloon, NASA engineers fired the flying saucer’s Star 48 solid fuel rocket engine, which shot the test vehicle at Mach 4 to the test altitude.

Once way up there at 200,000 feet, NASA’s people deployed the supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD)—that’s the giant air brakewhich dropped the flying saucer’s speed to about Mach 2. That part was over in about 60 seconds, Clark said during the call early this morning.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although the second parachute, designed to slow the flying saucer’s descent to earth didn’t work properly, it still had some slowing effect and NASA’s engineers declared the flight a success. The main purpose, was after all to test the SIAD.

Reiterating that message, the project’s manager Mark Adler, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained that all the mission objectives were met, despite the second one’s failure to pop out as expected. “This project was three years in the making… It was a great day, it worked great,” he said.

The engineers on the call said that recovery teams found the flying saucer completely intact, as well as all of the other parts that came hurtling to Earth. The most important component, it seemed, was the black box containing all of the telemetry data collected during the test flight. That’s ultimately the information, plus the high resolution video and imagery, that NASA will use to improve both parachutes.

Adler suggested that the second parachute’s failure, a massive beast NASA calls a supersonic disk sail parachute (SDS), was actually a good thing, since it will give the eggheads a chance to work out the kinks before the next test flight, tentatively scheduled for summer 2015. There are three planned, in total.

The next test will likely feature a similarly sized SIAD, and SDS. The third will likely feature a 20 meter SIAD, and a very different design, Clark said.

The reason NASA had to go through all this trouble to test a parachute was that existing wind tunnel labs aren’t big enough to test the SIAD or the second chute, the one which brought the flying saucer to the ground. “It’s an enormous parachute, the size of a small warehouse,” Clark said.

Although the planned mission to Mars in 2020 won’t require the SIAD—the payload is only about 2.5 tons, in the future the 15 to 20 tons required to shoot habitats and other materials onto the Martian surface will need the SIAD. So after today’s test we’re one small step closer to landing someone on Mars.

A prior version of this story referred to the SIAD as a "parachute." In reality, it's more of an inflatable spoiler.