After enduring multiple delays, several false starts, and poor weather conditions, NASA has finally begun testing new gear that could help humanity set up an outpost on Mars. The saucer-shaped spacecraft, called LDSD (Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator), was first tested on June 28th in Hawaii. NASA has released a video of the test showing the spacecraft launch and reach a height of 180,000 feet, an altitude in the earth’s atmosphere whose conditions rival those on Mars.
As seen in the video, the NASA team successfully demonstrated the spacecraft’s ability to handle Martian-like atmospheric conditions. Along with the spacecraft, the LDSD team also tested a 100-foot-wide parachute, which is the largest parachute ever flown. With the spacecraft reaching speeds of Mach 2.5, the parachute was meant to slow the craft down to subsonic landing speeds. Although the first part of the test went well, the parachute failed to deploy properly.
This setback hasn’t discouraged NASA, however. Ian Clark of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the one narrating the video above, said, “We are literally re-writing the books on high-speed parachute operations, and we are doing it a year ahead of schedule.” With the test, NASA met all of their flight objectives, and they were able to recover all video hardware and data recorders. This will help them apply the shortcomings of this test to future flights. Clark added, “There’s a lot of physics to this problem that we’re now gaining new insights into that we’ve never had before, and we’re learning more about what it takes to build parachutes this size that can be safely deployed at these conditions.”
The goal of these tests is to eventually use the LDSD to land a large spacecraft on other moons and planets, specifically, Mars. If all goes well, the spacecraft could be launch ready within the next few years. Unfortunately, we won’t see it in action anytime soon. The 2020 Mars rover is set to use the same sky-crane landing as Curiosity. NASA plans to carry out at least two more tests on the LDSD in 2015.