There’s long been a connection between science fiction and groundbreaking technology, but those who catch a glimpse of NASA’s new flying saucer-shaped craft over Hawaii in the coming week may think that they’ve stumbled across a film shoot. NASA considers the craft—a Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator—as the one of the technologies integral to leading manned missions to Mars, and this test will see the LDSD carried 120,000 feet above the earth, simulating an entry into the Red Planet’s atmosphere, before a 100-foot diameter parachute is deployed to carry the craft back down to the seas near Hawaii. And best of all—NASA will stream the flying saucer’s test flight live online.
In order to safely land on Mars, large parachutes and drag-reduction techniques are required to slow spacecraft from the supersonic speeds that they reach upon entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The first such device, the Viking, was developed in 1976, and a version of that parachute was used to land the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. But as NASA plans more elaborate unmanned missions, and looks towards manned missions to Mars, heavier spacecraft will be required—with larger inflatable decelerators and parachutes to slow them down—and that’s where the flying saucer (LDSD) comes in.
The first trial of the LDSD was performed a year ago—and while a weather balloon carried the craft to the edge of the atmosphere, and an inflatable decelerator worked, the parachute “did not perform as expected,” according to NASA. Numerous improvements have been made, and it’s hoped that the 100-foot parachute—the largest ever deployed—will fare much better this time around.
As NASA explains, they hope the test will go something like this: “After release from the balloon, rockets will lift the vehicle to 180,000 feet (55 kilometers) and reach supersonic speeds. Traveling at three times the speed of sound, the saucer’s decelerator will inflate, slowing the vehicle, and then a parachute will deploy at 2.35 times the speed of sound to carry it to the ocean’s surface.” And if all this technology works well, vital fuel can be saved for intricate landing moves.
Originally this year’s test flight was slated for June 2nd—but unfavorable ocean and weather conditions have forced a couple of delays. NASA now hopes to launch the LDSD from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range facility in Kauai, Hawaii some time after 7:30 a.m. HST (1:30 p.m. EDT) on Monday, June 8. To watch it live, visit this feed from NASA.