LONDON (TIP): Nasa’s experimental flying saucer, which was being used to test technologies for future Mars landings, hurtled down and crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Kauai, Hawaii, after its parachute failed to deploy. Nasa called the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator’s (LDSD) maiden flight successful but cheers rapidly died down as the gigantic chute designed to slow its fall emerged tangled.
Nasa officials declared it “a good test of technology” that will one day be used to deliver heavy spacecraft and eventually astronauts to Mars. “What we just saw was a really good test,” said Nasa engineer Dan Coatta, who is with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This test was the first of three planned for the LDSD project developed to evaluate new landing technologies for future Mars missions. While this initial test was designed to determine the flying ability of the vehicle, it also deployed two new landing technologies. Those landing technologies will be officially tested in the next two flights involving clones of the saucer-shaped vehicle. Future robotic missions to Mars and eventual human exploration of the Red Planet will require that massive payloads bigger than the Curiosity rover to be delivered to the surface.
Nasa, therefore, is developing new large, sturdy, and lightweight systems to deliver next-generation rovers and landers to Mars. These new technologies would be able to slow larger and heavier landers from the supersonic speeds at Mars atmospheric entry to subsonic ground-approach necessary for a safe landing.The LDSD design borrows from the technique used by the Hawaiian pufferfish-the ‘O’opu Hue — to increase its size without adding mass by rapid inflation.
These systems called low density supersonic decelerators aim to solve the complicated problem of slowing Martian entry vehicles down enough to safely deliver large payloads to the Martian surface without bringing along massive amounts of extra rocket propellant or carrying a large and heavy atmospheric entry shield. Landing on Mars is not like landing on Earth which has a dense atmosphere or on the moon which has no atmosphere.
Mars is somewhere in-between with too much atmosphere to allow rockets alone to land heavy vehicles as is done on the moon but too little atmosphere to land vehicles from space purely with friction and parachutes as is done on Earth. Parachutes for Mars surface-bound craft must be enormous because the atmosphere is too thin to fill a parachute like those used on Earth.
Even with large parachutes, powerful retro rockets or rugged airbags have been required to complete the landing. These are some of the factors that make delivering large payloads to the surface of Mars extremely difficult.During Saturday’s trial, after taking off from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, the balloon boosted the LDSD over the Pacific. Its rocket motor then ignited, carrying it to a height of 55km. After two and a half hours of ascent, when the balloon reached a height of 120,000 feet, it detached the saucer, which fired its engine and rose to 180,000ft, traveling at 3.8 times the speed of sound.