NASA to study supersonic parachute shredded in 'flying saucer' test

NASA to study supersonic parachute shredded in 'flying saucer' test
NASA video shows the LDSD test in the skies over Hawaii on June 8. (NASA)

A supersonic parachute meant to slow a flying saucer during landing quickly failed during a test flight Monday – a second strike that the team had been hoping to avoid. Now, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory hope to pull more data from the craft to try and learn what happened -- and how to improve it.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, is designed to allow humans and cargo to land safely on Mars without smashing into the planet. It features a 100-foot-wide supersonic parachute that has more than double the area of the one that helped get NASA's Mars rover Curiosity to touch down without a hitch.


But in this case of this much-larger parachute, it appears that there are still a few more kinks to figure out, NASA officials said.

"We are pushing the limits of our technologies, our engineering and our understanding of aerodynamic decelerators," Ian Clark, LDSD's principal investigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a briefing Tuesday. "This year, the physics of supersonic parachutes pushed back."

The test was conducted in the skies over Kauai, Hawaii. The test vehicle – a flying saucer – was sent high into Earth's stratosphere, where the air is roughly as thin as Mars'. (Thin air is not very good at slowing down falling objects – which is why spacecraft often require such enormous parachutes to be effective.) Two technologies were employed – a supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator and the supersonic parachute. After the parachute failed, the flying saucer splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where it was recovered.

Officials called the run a success, at least in part. The supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator system, which looks something like a giant inner tube, deployed successfully; and even though the parachute didn't work, researchers will be able to analyze what happened using the data soon to be collected from the onboard cameras and memory files.

Still, team members had said earlier that they'd been aiming for more.

"To have a fully successful day, we really want the parachute to work," Dan Coatta, a mechanical engineer at JPL in La Cañada Flintridge, said shortly before the test began.



7:11 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled JPL engineer Dan Coatta's name.


Though the parachute failed moments into deployment, it seemed to fully inflate before being torn apart in the violent turbulence felt at supersonic speed. That's an improvement on the first test of the system last year, when rips quickly developed in the chute even as it was unfurling.

The LDSD system will have to have two fully successful flights before it can be approved for use in a Mars program, said Mark Adler, LDSD’s project manager at JPL. That means that the third planned test, set to take place next year, will probably not be the last.

"I think we would need one more flight than was currently planned," Adler said.

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