Flying saucers may soon take flight in the Martian atmosphere. Unlike the UFO's regularly featured in sci-fi novels however, these supersonic saucers will be man-made.
NASA is currently preparing to test its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a disk shaped payload delivery system designed to increase the agencies payload delivery capacity for future missions to the Red Planet.
Previous missions to Mars involved landing relatively small rovers but as NASA ramps up its plans for future mission, the agency will need a delivery system that can safely land heavier and bulkier payloads on the Martian surface. NASA will start testing the LDSD this coming June.
"The LDSD crosscutting demonstration mission will test breakthrough technologies that will enable large payloads to be safely landed on the surface of Mars, or other planetary bodies with atmospheres, including Earth," says NASA. "These new technologies will not only enable landing of larger payloads on Mars, but also allow access to much more of the planet's surface by enabling landings at higher altitude sites."
This week, members of the media were treated to a sneak peak of NASA's new flying saucer-like machine. Journalists were allowed entry into a NASA lab at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"The LDSD is one of several crosscutting technologies NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate is developing to create the new knowledge and capabilities necessary to enable our future missions to an asteroid, Mars and beyond," the agency adds. "The directorate is committed to developing the critical technologies required to enable future exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit."
The LDSD is currently being prepared for its upcoming maiden test flight, which will be held in Hawaii. The device will be taken up into the Earth's atmosphere at a height of 120,000 feet using a balloon. However, the LDSD's climb will not stop there and a rocket will be fired to take the NASA machine to a final altitude of 180,000 feet where it will start its descent.
During the trip back to the Earth's surface, the LDSD will reach speeds of up to Mach 3.5. The craft will then start to decelerate by inflating and increasing its surface area. After slowing down, the LDSD will deploy a large parachute to further slow it down. The parachute is around 100 feet wide and will allow the craft to safely splash down in the ocean.
The LDSD is one of three devices currently being developed by NASA. The three payload delivery systems are currently the largest of their kind and all three can fly several times faster than the speed of sound.
"Together, these new drag devices can increase payload delivery to the surface of Mars from our current capability of 1.5 metric tons to 2 to 3 metric tons, depending on which inflatable decelerator is used in combination with the parachute," says NASA in the LDSD's overview. "They will increase available landing altitudes by 2-3 kilometers, increasing the accessible surface area we can explore. They also will improve landing accuracy from a margin of 10 kilometers to just 3 kilometers. All these factors will increase the capabilities and robustness of robotic and human explorers on Mars."