A NASA vehicle launched high into the atmosphere to explore how to land heavy spacecraft, and possibly human beings, on Mars splashed down off Hawaii on Saturday, completing a mostly successful test, the agency announced.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, launched about 11:40 a.m. PDT from the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.
The test was the result of a four-year project aimed at landing a vehicle on Mars heavier than the roughly 2,000-pound Curiosity rover, which arrived on the Red Planet in 2012.
Though NASA deemed the test a success, even sending out a celebratory Twitter message -- "It's a wrap!" -- about 3 p.m., NBC News was reporting that the vehicle's supersonic parachute failed to deploy properly, causing a hard landing in the Pacific Ocean.
The LDSD is meant to slow a Mars-bound body, likely to be traveling at four times the speed of sound, with the expansion of an inflatable doughnut followed by the release of a large parachute.
With the successful test run, the LDSD should allow NASA to ferry loads weighing up to 3 metric tons to Mars' surface, twice the capacity of the Curiosity mission.
In its statement, NASA said the test vehicle dropped from its balloon successfully and its rockets appeared to fire as expected.
Scientists had long struggled to find a test environment similar to Mars' thin atmosphere, but found something close in the air over Kauai.
To conduct the test, NASA hitched the vehicle to a balloon and floated it to the upper reaches of the stratosphere -- about 120,000 feet, or 22 miles, in the air.
NASA will hold a media teleconference on Sunday to discuss the results of the test.
Times staff writer Julie Rosen contributed to this report.
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