In preparation for future missions to planet Mars, the U.S. space agency has conducted a test on a vehicle that could play crucial roles in landing heavy payloads on the surface of the Red Planet.
Earlier hampered by bad weather, NASA has finally launched the test flight of its flying saucer technology on Monday. The technology is part of the agency's project that seeks to develop landing vehicles that will be used in future Mars missions.
The system known as the Low-Density Sonic Decelerator (LDSD) is composed of a saucerlike "supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator" (SIAD) and a supersonic parachute.
During the test flight, the vehicle detached itself from the balloon carrying it upon reaching an altitude of 120,000 feet, where it activated its rocket engine to get to 180,000 feet at four times the speed of sound.
Descent started at this height with the SIAD inflated with pressurized gas to slow down the fall. NASA spokesman Joshua Buck likened this to an airbag popping in the car, only the SIAD is donut-shaped.
The second part of the descent supposedly involves the parachute opening up to slow down the descent but the 100 foot supersonic parachute only opened partially.
"Reaching Mach 4, #LDSD's SIAD deployed & inflated. Chute deployed, but did not inflate. We'll study data from this test to learn & improve," NASA tweeted.
Although the parachute did not work as intended, mission team members said that the test can still provide valuable data.
"This is exactly why we do tests like this before we send things to Mars, so that we can understand exactly how they work, or don't work," said JPL engineer Dan Coatta. "Then we can improve on our designs to make sure that, when we're actually ready to send [heavy] spacecraft to Mars, we know that they're going to work when that big mission is on the line."
The LDSD system had its first test flight in June last year and just like what happened in Monday's test flight, everything went well until the supersonic parachute was deployed. It was torn apart and was eventually destroyed.
LDSD team members, however, said that the trial was a success because it provided them with information that would be of help in improving landing technology.
In a news conference prior to the second test flight, LDSD project manager Mark Adler said that they have developed a stronger and more robust parachute this time albeit it appears not yet good enough for deployment in a Mars mission.