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NASA Tests 'Space Saucer,' Releases Video

By Sandy Fitzgerald   |   Saturday, 09 Aug 2014 11:06 PM

NASA launched a flying saucer-like aircraft into near-space earlier this summer to test whether its design could reach altitudes and air speeds to test two breakthrough technologies planned for future missions to Mars.

The agency's Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project's test flight at the end of June was a success, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported on its website Friday.

The first of three tests of the rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle was conducted from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.

Story continues below videos.

The saucer-shaped craft carried two "cutting-edge technologies" that will be tested next year aboard a similar test vehicle, NASA says.

The first, a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SAID) was described as a doughnut-shaped airbrake that deploys during space flights, and slows a flying spacecraft down from 3.8 times the speed of sound down to twice the speed of sound.

Another technology, the Supersonic Disksail Parachute, described as the "largest supersonic parachute ever flown," was also tested. The 100-foot parachute is twice the area size of another parachute that the Mars Science Laboratory project used when the Curiosity rover went to Mars in 2012.

"A good test is one where there are no surprises but a great test is one where you are able to learn new things, and that is certainly what we have in this case," said Ian Clark, the principal investigator for the LDSD project. "Our test vehicle performed as advertised. The SIAD and ballute, which extracted the parachute, also performed beyond expectations. We also got significant insight into the fundamental physics of parachute inflation. We are literally rewriting the books on high-speed parachute operations, and we are doing it a year ahead of schedule."

For the test, researchers took the vehicle up to near-space with a balloon, reports the website Viral Global News.

After the vehicle was up to 37 kilometers high, or near space, it was then released, prompting its onboard motor to start. The craft then went up to over 180,000 feet at a speed of over four times the speed of sound.

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The two slowing devices were then inflated. There was one technical problem, though. The giant parachute failed to inflate, and it tore apart, leaving the LDSD to fall into the ocean, where it was recovered by Navy divers.

NASA said in its press release that it sent several high-definition video cameras up with the flying saucer, which weighs in at around 7,000 pounds, and said the imagery is helping the project's scientists and engineers enjoy insights into the saucer's flight.

"As far as I am concerned, whenever you get to ride shotgun on a rocket-powered flying saucer, it is a good day," said Clark. "We hope the video will show everyone how beautiful and awesome the test was, and to just to give folks an insight into what experimental flight test is all about."

NASA is currently planning robot missions to Mars, with plans for human expeditions to follow at some point in the future.

As part of the missions, the spacecraft will need to land safely, to enable hauling larger payloads to Mars.

Ironically, the technology for decelerating such crafts dates back to 1976, when NASA's Viking Program put two landers on the "Red Planet." The basic design has been used since that time, including on Curiosity.

Such atmospheric drag allows rocket engines and fuel to be saved for flight and landing, but the heavier landers in the future "will require much larger drag devices than any now in use to slow them down -- and those next-generation drag devices will need to be deployed at higher supersonic speeds to safely land vehicle, crew and cargo," said NASA.

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