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NASA is working on a supersonic flying saucer vehicle with an inflatable landing system to deliver large payloads to other planets, including Mars.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is a disk-shaped module with an inflatable apparatus called a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) to reduce its speed as it approaches the surface. Inflatable vessels around the ship will be filled with pressurized air to slow the aircraft. Then a 30-foot parachute will help it land.
In the past, craft were landed on Mars with a skycrane technique that used a system of reverse thruster rockets and tethers. The new method will allow larger payloads to be landed on Mars and may pave the way for a human mission.
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been testing the LDSD with rocket sleds to evaluate the effectiveness of the inflatable system. They will next test the efficiency of the parachute attached to the LDSD. They may need a larger parachute than the ones that have been used in the past in order to land larger payloads. Parachutes and reverse thrusters alone will not be effective on Mars because of differences between its atmosphere and those of Earth and the moon.
Flight tests are expected to begin in the fall. They will be conducted at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. A high-altitude balloon will launch a test vehicle to 120,000 feet, and the rocket will bring it to supersonic speeds and raise it to an altitude of 180,000 feet. The thrusters will disengage, and gravity will cause it to fall back toward Earth. When it reaches Mach 3.5 (2600 miles per hour), the inflatable HAID system will fill with air. It will slow the vehicle, the parachute will be released, and the ship will land.
NASA expects the LDSD project to be ready for a mission to Mars in 2018, but there are currently no missions planned except the tests in Hawaii.