It's not ready for Mars yet, but NASA's cheerful after its Low Density Supersonic Decelerator test.
If ever NASA's going to get humans to Mars it needs to solve the payload problem, and this weekend it went one step closer to that goal with a test of its Low Density Supersonic Decelerator. NASA needs to be able to load about 10 tonnes worth of equipment and people, and land them safely on the planet; at the moment it can manage about 1 and a half. Thus the test of its flying saucer which took place over the Pacific, the intent being to lift it up high - hence the balloon - drop it down, and hope it didn't smack into the water like a large and fragile brick.
The helium balloon was launched from the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii at just after 08:40 local time (18:40 GMT). About two hours later it was 120,000 feet up in the air, at which point NASA let it go, shot it up through the stratosphere to 160,000 feet with its rocket motor, and then let it fall back down. That meant it would hit Mach 4, approximating conditions during a Mars landing, the idea being to see whether or not the new atmospheric braking systems would work.
The craft, Keiki o ka honua, or 'child from earth' in Hawaiian, deployed the doughnut-shaped supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD) first, to increase drag and slow the craft down. After that the parachute was supposed to deploy, and this was where things came slightly unglued. The parachute - 118 feet (36 meters) in diameter, the largest NASA's ever used - didn't fully inflate, which meant that the device tumbled into the ocean at a much faster rate of speed than NASA would have liked. Even so the saucer was recovered without difficulty, and intact.
NASA's upbeat. "What we saw is a very good test," says NASA mission specialist Dan Coatta. "This is an opportunity to look at the data and learn what happen and apply that for the next test."
After all, the parachute - the element that failed - wasn't the important part of this test; it's still in the design stage. The idea here wasn't to achieve a perfect landing, but to achieve any sort of landing at all, and for that SIAD had to work perfectly. If that hadn't happened the whole thing would have smashed to bits, including the hardware and data recorders.
"That's really the treasure trove of all the details," Coatta said about the black box recorders. "Pressure, temperature, force. High-definition video. All those measurements that are really key to us to understanding exactly what happens throughout this test."
NASA hopes to return to Hawaii next year for further tests.
Source: BBC News