Engineers and scientists from NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project are about to test a new technology for landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces.
The objective of an experimental flight test, planned for June 2014, is to see if the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) cutting-edge, rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle operates as it was designed – in near-space at high Mach numbers.
During the test, a balloon will carry the LDSD vehicle from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, to an altitude of about 36.5 km.
There, it will be dropped and its booster rocket will quickly kick in and carry it to 55 km, accelerating to Mach 4.
Once in the very rarified air high above the Pacific, the vehicle will begin a series of automated tests of a 6-meter supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator and a parachute.
“The success of this experimental test flight will be measured by the success of the test vehicle to launch and fly its flight profile as advertised. If our flying saucer hits its speed and altitude targets, it will be a great day,” said Mark Adler, a team member of the LDSD project.
“Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere. We top out at about 55 km and Mach 4. Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8, we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems,” said Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project.
“The agency is moving forward and getting ready for Mars as part of NASA’s Evolvable Mars campaign. We fly, we learn, we fly again. We have two more vehicles in the works for next year,” said Michael Gazarik of NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The LDSD vehicle was built at NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California, and shipped to the Hawaii Navy facility for final assembly and preparations.
“Our Supersonic Flight Dynamics Test Vehicle number 1 arrived at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on April 17, 2014,” Mr Adler said.
“Since then, we have been preparing it for flight. One of the last big assemblies occurred on April 30, when we mated the vehicle with its Star-48 booster rocket.”
The LDSD flying saucer carries several onboard cameras. It is expected that video of selected portions, including the rocket-powered ascent, will be streamed live to NASA TV.