NASA just successfully tested its "flying saucer" reentry vehicle, which is one of the key components in the agency's plan to send humans to Mars. Dubbed the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), the disc-shaped vessel is designed to slow down Martian landing modules, so that astronauts can safely make their descent to the Red Planet.
Weighing roughly 7,000 pounds and measuring 15 feet in diameter, the LDSD is too large to be tested in one of NASA's wind tunnel laboratories. That's why the mission leads opted to strap it to a sturdy high-altitude helium balloon capable of carrying the decelerator 120,000 feet into the air, slightly lower than the altitude of Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking space jump in 2012.
The balloon is a feat of engineering in itself, measuring a whopping 22 acres when laid flat. It was released from the US Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii at 1:45 PM Eastern Time today, and spent several hours carrying the LDSD to its target height.
At 5:35 PM, the spacecraft was briefly dropped into freefall, before its Star 48 solid-fuel rocket booster blasted it up to an even higher elevation of 180,000 feet, or 34 miles, launching it out of the stratosphere and into the mesosphere.
At this height, the LDSD's first braking mechanism, the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), was activated. Its essentially a spaceship airbag—a system of automated pressure valves that increase the spacecraft's diameter from 15 meters to 20 meters. This increase in atmospheric drag slowed the LDSD from around Mach 4 to around Mach 2.
After that, NASA made history by unveiling the largest parachute ever built, measuring 100 feet in diameter. Unfortunately, the parachute malfunctioned and only partially deployed, making it the only weak link in an otherwise perfect test.
At this time, mission leads aren't exactly sure what caused the problem, though it's worth noting that the first flight test of the LDSD last summer was also hindered by a failed parachute deployment. When testing out something as novel as the world's largest parachute, it seems that accidents are bound to happen.
"This is exactly why we do this tests like this before we go to Mars," pointed out mission engineer Dan Coatta during NASA Television's live coverage of the event.
The LDSD was originally scheduled to launch on June 2, but mission leads were forced to scrub the test flight several times due to bad weather. As frustrating as that must have been, it's somewhat poetic that the vehicle ended up acing its second test flight on the same day that the first trailer for The Martian was released.
While the LDSD will need to beef up a lot more before it's Mars-ready, its flight today demonstrates the sophisticated interplanetary vehicles depicted in The Martian are evidently well on their way to becoming a reality. Hopefully within the next 30 years, we will no longer have to rely on science fiction blockbusters to give us a vicarious taste of Mars.