The skies over Hawaii will play host to a strange scene on Wednesday as NASA plans to test a flying saucer.
The strange craft could be crucial for a future human mission to Mars. NASA moved testing to Wednesday after unfavorable ocean conditions made it impossible to fly on Tuesday, writes Laura Smith-Spark for CNN.
Largest supersonic parachute to undergo testing
After the test, the saucer-shaped craft will perform a splashdown in the ocean so that NASA can recover it. The test will see a huge balloon lift a test vehicle with the flying saucer, known as the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), to a height of 120,000 feet. From its position of over 20 miles above Earth, the LDSD will be released and mission controllers will fire its rockets.
The most important part of the test is a giant supersonic parachute which is 100 feet wide, and four cameras will beam video from onboard the craft.
The first test of the LDSD took place last year, and the only disappointment was the fact that the parachute did not deploy properly. A new design will be tested this time, known as the Supersonic Ringsail parachute, and NASA claims it is the largest supersonic parachute ever tested for use on a mission to Mars.
Future Mars missions to use atmospheric drag for landing
NASA still uses technology developed for the Viking Program to decelerate from high speeds in space. Under the Program, two landers were successfully put onto the surface of Mars in 1976, and the basic Viking parachute design has been used since that date. Most recently the design delivered the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars in 2012.
However good the Viking parachute design may be, NASA needs improved landing technologies in order to successfully deliver larger spaceships to rocky environments at higher altitudes.
“As NASA plans ambitious robotic science missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human expeditions to come, the spacecraft needed to land safely on the Red Planet’s surface will become larger and heavier in order to accommodate explorers’ extended stays on the Martian surface,” reads the space agency’s website.
As a result the supersonic parachute needs to create more atmospheric drag so that the vehicles can land safely. The use of a parachute to decelerate the vehicles means that they can save fuel for other maneuvers.
The LDSD is scheduled to perform another test in summer 2016.