NASA has declared its Saturday, June 28, test flight of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) a resounding success despite an issue with its parachute deployment. This vehicle, which has been popularly characterized as resembling the “flying saucer” of old science fiction lore, is meant to help the agency with its future goal of deploying large payloads to the surface of Mars. The test flight took place off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, adjacent to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility.
The pioneering “next step” toward a future giant leap began that day at 2:45 p.m. EDT with the ascent of the LDSD via a high-altitude balloon. A little over two hours later, at 5:05 EDT, the vehicle was released from the balloon and began its powered flight 120,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean (approximately 23 miles in altitude).
Following its release, the craft traveled up to an altitude of approximately 180,000 feet (34 miles) at a speed of Mach 3.8. At this time, the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), described by NASA as a “large, doughnut shaped” inflatable tube, was deployed, which was meant to slow down the vehicle. However, the test hit a snag when the LDSD’s Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute, which is 100 feet wide and the largest, first supersonic parachute of its kind, did not deploy as expected. At 5:35 EDT, the craft splashed down in the Pacific, to be recovered by the vessel Kahana.
Despite the parachute snafu, NASA representatives were positive about the vehicle’s performance and its future test flights. During a post-flight teleconference held Sunday, June 29, Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., stated, “We are thrilled about yesterday’s test. The test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives. We have recovered all the vehicle hardware and data recorders and will be able to apply all of the lessons learned from this information to our future flights.”
Ian Clark, principal investigator for LDSD at JPL, emphasized that the team was able to actually test the parachute one whole year ahead of schedule; the data and lessons learned from this test will certainly aid future endeavors. Clark said, “Because our vehicle flew so well, we had the chance to earn ‘extra credit’ points with the [SIAD]. All indications are that the SIAD deployed flawlessly, and because of that, we got the opportunity to test the second technology, the enormous supersonic parachute, which is almost a year ahead of schedule.”
Dorothy Rasco, deputy associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, was enthusiastic about the test’s successes and what it means for future solar system exploration. She emphasized how NASA learns—and improves—through its flight tests.
“This entire effort was just fantastic work by the whole team and is a proud moment for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. This flight reminds us why NASA takes on hard technical problems, and why we test – to learn and build the tools we will need for the future of space exploration. Technology drives exploration, and yesterday’s flight is a perfect example of the type of technologies we are developing to explore our solar system.”
The atmosphere of Mars makes it a perilous site for a landing (remember the “Seven Minutes of Terror” as the world watched Curiosity land in August 2012). In a previous AmericaSpace article written by Mike Killian, the need for this type of vehicle was emphasized, as current Mars landing technology is in need of an update.
Killian wrote: “The current technology used for decelerating from a high speed atmospheric entry to the final stages of landing on Mars dates back to NASA’s Viking Program in 1976, and the same basic parachute design has been used ever since. LDSD brings a much needed upgrade; the heavier landers of the future will instead use atmospheric drag as a solution, which will save rocket engines and fuel for final maneuvers and landing procedures. LDSD will also give NASA the capability to land payloads of up to three tons, twice what can currently be landed, while also improving landing accuracy from the current margin of 10 kilometers to a mere three kilometers.”
The team will continue to analyze the parachute findings from this test flight in order to improve the vehicle. The next test of the LDSD is scheduled for early 2015. If humanity is to tackle more ambitious space missions including a visit to Mars, a vehicle such as LDSD will be essential in delivering supplies and infrastructure. With this test, NASA advanced its technology closer to goals previously only fantasized about in the pages of science fiction.