NASA’s successfully tests its “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”

30 June-2014, Alex Knapp/Forbes: NASA’s official name for it is the “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator,” but let’s be honest – it looks like a flying saucer. But whatever it’s called, one thing that is true about this new concept vehicle being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory just had a successful test run.

NASA’s successfully tests its “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”

NASA's successfully tests its “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”

NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator took a balloon up to high altitudes. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The LDSD is being developed with a particular purpose in mind – making it easier to land larger and heavier robotic probes on the surface of Mars . Ever since NASA first landed the robotic Viking probes on the Red Planet in 1976, the technology used to land probes on Mars has remained unchanged.

But as future missions to Mars require more instruments and equipment, the robots themselves also get much bigger and heavier – which makes the engineering challenges involved in both launching from Earth and landing them on Mars more difficult with the current system. If NASA is successful in developing the LDSD for Mars missions, it might be possible to nearly double the weight of probes it sends. The LDSD will also enable more precise landings on the Martian surface.

For this test, the test vehicle was taken to an altitude of 120,000 feet via helium balloon on the afternoon of Saturday, June 28. At that point, the vehicle was dropped from the balloon and its rocket engine fired, taking it to an altitude of about 180,000 feet at about Mach 4.

Upon reaching that altitude, the vehicle successfully deployed an inflatable ring called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, which aims to increase the drag and help decelerate the vehicle. The next part of the test had less success – the parachute deployed but didn’t fully inflate.

“Imagery downlinked in real-time from the test vehicle indicates that the parachute did not deploy as expected,” NASA reported on its website.

The vehicle splashed down in the Pacific Ocean shortly thereafter.

It should be noted, though, that the purpose of this test was to test the actual flight profile of the vehicle following its rocket launch. That flight profile appears to have been just as expected. According to NASA, the test of the SIAD and the parachute were only included “as a bonus” with further testing aimed at refining those technologies in the coming months.

If you want to see the test flight for yourself, NASA has archived the video here.