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NASA conducted a test of its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a vehicle that was designed to transport payloads to Mars, on June 8. The supersonic parachute, the largest one ever deployed, was torn apart during the test when it deployed but did not inflate.
The test was performed at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. The test flight was originally scheduled for June 2, but it had to be delayed due to strong winds and rough seas that could have interfered with recovery of the LDSD vehicle.
The system consists of a saucer-like vehicle called a “supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator” (SIAD) and a 100-foot parachute. The SIAD fits around the rim of an atmospheric entry vehicle and increases its surface area and drag to slow it down as it enters the atmosphere. NASA is working on two versions of the SIAD. One is 20 feet wide when inflated, and the other is 26 feet wide.
The LDSD was tested in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is similar to the Martian atmosphere. A 400-foot-wide balloon lifted the LDSD vehicle to an altitude of about 23 miles. Then the 7,000-pound craft was dropped, and an onboard engine moved it at supersonic speeds and raised it to a height of 34 miles. Then the SIAD inflated and slowed the craft from four times the speed of sound (Mach 4) to Mach 2.35. That should have been slow enough for the parachute to deploy and guide the vehicle down into the Pacific, if the parachute had inflated correctly.
Engineers will need to study data on the LDSD’s “black box” to figure out why the parachute failed to inflate. That will help them improve their designs to prepare for a future mission to Mars.
This was the second test of the technology. The first flight test was conducted on June 28, 2014. The parachute was destroyed when it came time for it to deploy. NASA considered the test a success nonetheless because they gained valuable information that could help them improve the technology. The supersonic parachute was improved for the second test.
The 2,000-pound Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August 2012 was the heaviest object NASA has ever landed on the planet. It touched down with the help of a rocket-powered “sky crane” and a 50-foot-wide parachute. The new technology would allow NASA to land payloads as large as 30 metric tons or more.
The LDSD program costs about $230 million. A third test flight is tentatively scheduled to launch in 2016 from Kauai.