NASA wants to send ever-heavier spacecraft – along with humans at some point – to Mars and to make that feasible it will need a system that can slow down that equipment for a safe landing.
Taking some of the first step to develop that system will be a distinctly flying saucer-like test vehicle that will some time in the next two week blast off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii for what NASA calls its first engineering shakeout flight.
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NASA says it is developing three flying saucer, or rather Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) systems. The first two are supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerators -- very large, durable, balloon-like pressure vessels that inflate around the entry vehicle and slow it from Mach 3.5 or greater to Mach 2 or lower.
These decelerators are being developed in 6-meter-diameter and 8-meter-diameter configurations, NASA said. Also in development is a 30.5-meter-diameter parachute that will further slow the entry vehicle from Mach 1.5 or Mach 2 to subsonic speeds. All three devices will be the largest of their kind ever flown at speeds several times greater than the speed of sound, NASA said.
The six-meter version will be the one tested over the Pacific first.
Here’s what the mission looks like:
- NASA plans to use the very thin air found high in Earth’s stratosphere as a test bed for the LDSD mission.
- To reach the desired altitude of 120,000 feet, the LDSD project will use a helium-filled scientific balloon provided by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility. When fully deployed, the balloon is over 34 million cubic feet. At that size alone, one could fit a professional football stadium inside it. The material that makes the balloon, a very thin film called polyethylene that is similar thickness to that of sandwich wrap, will lift the massive test article to 120,000 feet.
- At that altitude, the test article will be detached from the balloon and a Star 48B long-nozzle, solid-fueled rocket engine will be employed to boost the test article on a trajectory to reach supersonic speeds (Mach 4) needed to test the 6-meter supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R) and the supersonic parachute operate a full year ahead of schedule.
- The SIAD-R, essentially an inflatable doughnut that increases the vehicle's size and, as a result, its drag, is deployed at about Mach 3.8. It will quickly slow the vehicle to Mach 2.5 where the parachute, the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, first hits the supersonic flow.
- Once at supersonic speeds, the deployment and function of the inflatable decelerators will be tested to slow the test article to a speed where it becomes safe to deploy a supersonic parachute (about Mach 3.8). About 45 minutes later, the saucer is expected to make a controlled landing onto the Pacific Ocean.
- The balloon and test article will all be recovered.
"The success of this experimental test flight will be measured by the success of the test vehicle to launch and fly its flight profile as advertised. If our flying saucer hits its speed and altitude targets, it will be a great day," said Mark Adler, project manager for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
The other two supersonic decelerator technologies will be thoroughly tested during two LDSD flight tests next year, NASA stated.
The point to all of this is to increase the size of the payload NASA can deliver to the Mars surface. These new drag devices can increase payload delivery to the surface of Mars from our current capability of 1.5 metric tons to 2 to 3 metric tons, depending on which inflatable decelerator is used in combination with the parachute, NASA said. They will increase available landing altitudes by 2-3 kilometers, increasing the accessible surface area we can explore. They also will improve landing accuracy from a margin of 10 kilometers to just 3 kilometers.
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