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NASA's 'flying saucer' test project deemed a success

Scientists and engineers convened at La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Friday to share findings of a recent test project that could help NASA deposit bigger, heavier payloads and spacecraft on the Martian surface.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, commonly referred to as NASA’s flying saucer, is a drag device intended to slow down objects from their rapid descent through Mars’ atmosphere so they can land unharmed on the planet’s surface.

Scientists believe the technology can someday be used to perform launches from the surface, increasing access to previously undiscovered regions of the planet.

Jeff Sheehy, a senior technologist with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., explained how the LDSD tests are part of an agency-wide focus on developing technologies to aid human exploration of Mars.

“It really boils down to you’ve got to get there, you’ve got to land there, you’ve got to live there, and you probably want to return from there,” Sheehy said.

Currently, NASA can safely deliver objects weighing up to 3,300 pounds to Mars. The new technology could accommodate loads as heavy as 6,600 pounds.

In June, mission leaders headed to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai to test how the decelerator would perform in Mars-like conditions. Using solid rocket boosters, they shot a 6,878-pound payload 190,000 miles up into the Earth’s stratosphere and set it spinning to mimic the planet’s atmospheric density.

When it was at the right height and spin, a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator installed around the edge of the payload instantly filled with air to reduce the speed to Mach 2.5.

Fractions of a second later, a helium-filled balloon parachute 100 feet in diameter was deployed to slow the vehicle down for its dive into the Pacific. The duration of the flight, from the balloon launch to splashdown, lasted about three hours.

Throughout the launch and landing, cameras attached to the vehicle captured the action as digital data was recorded, and later recovered, from inside the vehicle.

Mark Adler, LDSD project manager, called the project an overall success, adding that the team has already learned a lot from observing the video footage.

“Our main objective was to show that we could get this vehicle to altitude, that we could get it to the conditions that the technologies will see when they actually fly at Mars,” Adler said Friday. “At this point, we’ve actually achieved most of the objectives of the flight that we had this summer.”

After divers from the Navy’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team retrieved the vehicle, engineers were dismayed to learn that the “ballute” shredded during the descent.

Testing the dimensions and size of the parachute was a critical part of the exercise, and scientists are already working to make changes to the design before future tests scheduled for summer 2015, explained Ian Clark, a principal investigator on the project.

“What we saw from this test was that the shape of the parachute was extremely important,” Clark said, explaining possible improvements. “We’re going to go back to include more curvature in regions of the parachute that tend to be more susceptible to some of these high stresses.”

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