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NASA dreams of using flying saucers to send astronauts to Mars

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The Low Density Supersonic Decelerator project from NASA aims to build a spacecraft for Mars that will resemble a flying saucer. 

The LDSD is designed to slow massive payloads down as they speed through the Martian atmosphere. Small rovers and probes can use parachutes to decelerate while coming to a landing on the red planet. But, as missions become more advanced, they become heavier. 

Racing through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, the saucer-shaped LDSD will inflate a large ring around its perimeter, causing air drag. This causes the craft to slow down enough so that parachutes can be deployed before the vehicle lands on the Martian surface. 

The LDSD measures 22 feet wide and stands 6 feet high. Many people believe the craft closely resembles the flying saucer from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Using this new system, engineers hope to be able to place objects as large as a two-story house on the face of the red planet. 

A Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD-R) has been built to test technologies for the LDSD. This testing mechanism is a large rocket-powered sled located in China Lake, Calif. It is capable of delivering stress forces to the vehicle 25 percent greater than real-world conditions, providing a safety factor for the mission. 

"The tests demonstrate the ability of the SIAD-R to survive the aerodynamic loads experienced during inflation and operation [while entering the Martian atmosphere]," Mark Adler, engineer for Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.

NASA plans to test the new vehicle off the coast of Maui in June. The craft will be lofted to an altitude of 24 miles, in order to simulate the thin atmosphere of Mars. Rockets aboard the vehicle will ignite, propelling the LDSD to a velocity four times the speed of sound. At these velocities, the LDSD will be subject to many of the same stress forces that it would experience while entering the Martian atmosphere. 

"The LDSD is one of several cross-cutting technologies NASA... is developing to create the new knowledge and capabilities necessary to enable our future missions to an asteroid, Mars and beyond," NASA officials wrote in a press release. 

Similar braking technology could also be employed for other future missions to other planets and moons with significant atmospheres. 

The Sojourner rover that landed on Mars in 1997 weighed just 24 pounds. As human habitation of Mars comes closer to becoming a reality, NASA and other space agencies will need to develop additional technologies to land massive payloads on other worlds.  

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