NASA is preparing to launch a saucer-shaped vehicle into Earth's atmosphere in an experimental flight designed to land much heavier loads on Mars. However, it won't happen Tuesday as researchers wait for the right type of wind in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
"We're looking for very reliable, very predictable winds," said Ian Clark of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the principal investigator for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator.
For decades, robotic landers and rovers have hitched a ride to the red planet using the same parachute design. But NASA needs a bigger and stronger parachute if it wants to send astronauts there.
NASA has five more opportunities this month to launch LDSD from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. The next chance is this Thursday, followed by other launch windows on June 7, 9, 11 and 13.
Weather permitting, a high-altitude helium balloon the size of the Rose Bowl will carry the test vehicle 120,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. The vehicle will then fire its solid-fuel rocket booster and climb to 34 miles, where the atmosphere is similar to that of Mars.
"We have many sensors to reconstruct the trajectory and to measure the characteristics of the inflation of the devices," said LDSD project manager Mark Adler.
The main components of the LDSD vehicle are an 18 foot inflatable decelerator ring known as a SIAD-R and a 100-foot wide supersonic parachute. As the vehicle falls to Earth at four times the speed of sound, the SIAS and the giant parachute should pop out one at a time and guide it to an ocean landing.
"You'll see the SIAD deploy very rapidly around the vehicle and that provides the additional drag that we're going to need at Mars to slow these vehicles down at high speeds so we can land larger payloads," said Adler. "Then the parachute deploys and slows it down (further)."
It's been more than 40 years since NASA last tested a supersonic parachute, and there are many questions to be answered. Namely, how the SIAD and chute will deploy and inflate in the thin atmosphere of Mars and whether they're strong enough to survive the extreme environment.
"It's the challenges of Mars," said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission. "How do we get there? How do we land there? How do we live there? (And) how do we leave there?"
The Pacific Missile Range Facility was chosen as the site for LDSD testing because of the sheer scope of the military base, which offers almost unlimited airspace.
"We have a lot of space," said commanding officer Capt. Bruce Hay of the U.S. Navy. "If you're not familiar with our range, we have 2.1 million square miles of extended range complex."
The largest payload landed on Mars to date was the rover Curiosity in August 2012 at one metric ton. The technology contained in LDSD will allow payloads to increase substantially.
"The technologies that we're developing here on the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator project are ones that we think could increase by 50-percent or even double the mass that we can put on the surface of Mars," said Clark. "But they're also things that we think are ostensible to growing larger sizes (and) greater parachutes that would eventually enable us to land humans on the surface."
Launch of NASA's saucer-shaped vehicle delayed
'The technologies that we're developing here on the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator project are ones that we think could increase by 50 percent or even double the mass that we can put on the surface of Mars,' said researcher Ian ClarkPublished 9:48 PM HST Jun 02, 2014
NASA is preparing to launch a saucer-shaped vehicle into Earth's atmosphere in an experimental flight designed to land much heavier loads on Mars. However, it won't happen Tuesday as researchers wait for the right type of wind in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.Recommended