NASA’s inflatable flying saucer fitted with special drag devices to deliver heavier payloads to the Martian surface — hopefully in 2035 — is ready for a second test flight over the Pacific Ocean.
The test flight will be launched from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. NASA’s team is now waiting for the right weather conditions to try out its new Mars landing technology.
The test was originally scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. PDT Tuesday, June 2, but it had to be postponed to Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. ET (7:30 a.m. Hawaiian time), because ocean weather conditions were not favorable.
The latest update from NASA says the test has been postponed, once again, to “Thursday, June 4, no earlier than 7:30 a.m. HST (1:30 p.m. EDT).”
If poor conditions stop the test from commencing on Thursday, opportunity remains open for the next two weeks. There is also a second window between July 7 and July 17, according to the LDSD project manager, Mark Adler.
The 5 ft (4.6 meters) wide “flying saucer,” weighing 7,000 lbs (3,200 kg), is known as the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD). It is essentially a rocket-powered, disc-shaped spacecraft that incorporates two devices: An inflatable, doughnut-shaped tube called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) and a giant parachute designed to withstand supersonic wind speeds.
The two devices are designed to act as breaking systems and slow down the spacecraft as it descends into the Martian atmosphere. The test will be carried out at stratospheric heights where thinness of the atmosphere is comparable to the thinness of the Martian atmosphere.
According to NASA, “The test, performed over the Pacific Ocean, will simulate the supersonic entry and descent speeds at which the spacecraft would be traveling through the Martian atmosphere.”
“LDSD project is designed to investigate and test breakthrough technologies for landing future robotic and human Mars missions and safely returning large payloads to Earth.”
Steve Jurczyk, with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said Monday that the new technology is designed to allow NASA land larger payloads than the current one ton limit using the “sky crane” technology which landed NASA’s rover Curiosity on the Red Planet.
“Right now we are at the technological limits of what we can land on Mars in terms of size and weight. This technology is required to land five metrictons for human missions, maybe 30 and beyond metric tons to the surface.”
The LDSD was first tested last June at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii. The craft was lifted to a height of 120,000 feet by a helium balloon and then accelerated by a rocket to a speed of Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound). It reached a height of 180,000 ft where the thinness of the atmosphere is comparable to that of the Martian atmosphere.
At the height of 180,000 ft, the LDSD’s 20-ft Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) was deployed, slowing down the craft to a speed of Mach 2.35 from Mach 4. The deceleration was due to friction as a result of increased surface area.
As the craft decelerated, it followed a curved path and began descending back to Earth. As it descended in the stratosphere, between 180,000 ft and 120,000 ft, the giant 110-foot-wide parachute was deployed.
But the parachute was ripped apart immediately after deployment at supersonic speed.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lead LDSD researcher Ian Clark told reporters Monday, “We saw much more dynamic and much more turbulent parachute inflation than we had ever known… things like the suspension lines exploding like lightning, moving in a very chaotic manner all over the place.”
However, using data collected from the test, the parachute has undergone redesign – reshaping, enlargement and restructuring – to withstand the stress of friction under supersonic speeds.
Jurczyk, said, “We learned a great deal from last year’s flight test. We’ve used that knowledge to improve the design and manufacturing of the hardware. This year I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll have a fully successful flight test.”
“It’s a much stronger, much more robust parachute,” Clark said.
NASA has set up plans to stream live imagery from the test flight. Four cameras have been attached to the LDSD to give different perspectives (DM) of the “flying saucer” during test flight.
According to Mark Adler, the LDSD project manager, “You get to see all the same video I do, at the same time I do… This year’s test is centered on how our newly-designed supersonic parachute will perform. We think we have a great design ready for the challenge.”
“What we will be looking most closely for is to see what happens on that fourth camera, when at Mach 2.35 our supersonic parachute is deployed,” Adler added.
The new technology will supersede current technologies, such as the “sky crane” system used to land NASA’s Curiosity rover on the Martian surface in 2012. The “sky crane” technology limits NASA’s payloads to about one ton, but the new LDSD technology is expected to be capable of landing up to 3 tons payload on Mars in subsequent missions.
[Images NASA, via Daily Mail, RT]