Landing the car-sized Curiosity rover on Mars was difficult enough, but what about when you want to go bigger? What about when you want to carry people to Mars? To test landing a larger payload on the Red Planet, NASA yesterday sent a flying saucer-like craft called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator 180,000 feet into the Earth’s atmosphere over Hawaii and then dropped it. The craft, dubbed Keiki o ka honua, or “child from earth” in Hawaiian, was equipped with a donut-shaped “Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator,” which deployed first to create drag, slowing down the craft to just 2.5 times the speed of sound. Then, the LDSD deployed NASA’s largest supersonic parachute yet.
NASA sent a saucer-like vehicle high into the sky to test technology for a future Mars landing, but its parachute tangled when deployed and the spacecraft splashed into the Pacific Ocean. The test began when the US space agency attached its “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator” vehicle to a helium balloon the size of a football field, the largest ever deployed, at a military base on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The balloon carried the saucer high into the sky starting at 1840 GMT. NASA television broadcast the event live. After some 2.5 hours of ascent, when the balloon reached a height of 120,000 feet (36,600 meters), it detached the saucer, which fired its rocket engine and rose to 180,000 feet (54,900 meters) traveling at 3.8 times the speed of sound. At that point the engine was cut off and NASA began its first test — deploying a doughnut-shaped inflatable device around the saucer dubbed the “Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator.” This successfully slowed the saucer’s descent to 2.5 times the speed of sound.