Quick look: NASA tests supersonic Mars flying saucer

NASA system looks to safely land larger spacecraft on Mars

NASA

NASA took an important first step towards sending heavier spacecraft to Mars this weekend when it successfully tested a nearly 7,000 pound flying saucer-like test vehicle and braking system over the Pacific Ocean. A high-altitude balloon launched the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) craft at about 120,000 feet. Once released the test vehicle’s solid-fueled rocket engine blasted the craft on a trajectory to reach the supersonic speeds (Mach 4) needed to test the supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator and the supersonic parachute. This test was the first of three planned for the LDSD project, developed to evaluate new landing technologies for future Mars missions.

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NASA’s saucer-shaped experimental flight vehicle is prepared for a Range Compatibility Test at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kaua‘i, Hawaii. During this exercise, which occurred on April 23, 2014, all the radio frequencies interfaces between the vehicle, its balloon carrier and the missile range were checked.  

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This image was taken during a "hang-angle" measurement, in which engineers set the vehicle's rocket motor to the appropriate angle for the high-altitude test.

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REUTERS/Marco Garcia

The launch tower prepares to launch a saucer-shaped test vehicle, which holds equipment for landing large payloads on Mars, at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii June 28, 2014. The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) will be lifted to high altitudes, where a rocket will take it even higher to the top of the stratosphere at several times the speed of sound.

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REUTERS/Marco Garcia

Onlookers await the launch of a saucer-shaped test vehicle, which holds equipment for landing large payloads on Mars, at the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

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REUTERS/Marco Garcia

A closer look at the high altitude balloon.

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REUTERS/Marco Garcia

The high altitude balloon lifts the saucer-shaped test vehicle.

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REUTERS/Marco Garcia

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) will be lifted to high altitudes, where a rocket will take it even higher to the top of the stratosphere.

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A screen shot shows the LDSD test vehicle after it dropped from the balloon that lifted it to high altitudes and fired its rocket. The picture was taken by a low-resolution camera onboard the vehicle. Earth is the blue-green orb in the background.

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The LDSD test vehicle is unseen at the tip of the slash-like contrail at the upper left of this image. Just to the right of the contrail, and about a third of the way up, is the balloon that carried the saucer.

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Two members of the Navy's Explosive Ordinance Disposal team swim towards the pilot ballute (a combination balloon and parachute used for braking at high altitudes and speeds) that was used to deploy the parachute.

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NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator over the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range, the saucer-shaped test vehicle is lifted aboard the Kahana recovery vessel.

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After the test the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project rests aboard the recovery vessel Kahana.

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What it all might look like landing on Mars.