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NASA just conducted a test of its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The LDSD is 4.5 meters wide and weighs three tons. Rather than using motors to slow a vehicle as it enters a planet’s atmosphere, a brake shield called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator inflates to begin to increase the vehicle’s size and atmospheric pull to slow it down. Then a 33.5-meter-wide Supersonic Ring Sail Parachute, the biggest parachute ever used, is deployed to slow the vehicle further so that it can land safely.
The system is designed to allow sizable payloads to be landed on the surface of Mars and to allow landings at higher elevations. NASA wants to be able to land vehicles, freight, humans, and housing that could weigh up to 40,000 kilograms.
On March 31, NASA conducted a “spin table” test to look for any wobbles that might be caused by uneven distribution of mass in the LDSD. Any wobbles could be corrected by inserting small masses around the rim. LDSD supervisors answered questions from the public during the televised test.
The LDSD was first tested in June 2014. It was dropped from a helium inflatable and used a rocket engine to push it higher into the atmosphere, but the parachute failed to deploy properly and it crashed into the ocean.
NASA modified the shape of the parachute and made it stronger after the problem with last June’s test. This June, NASA plans to repeat that test at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Testing will continue later in 2015. NASA plans to send the LDSD to Mars in 2020 at the earliest.