NASA prepares for launch of saucer-shaped Mars lander

NASA is set to launch its Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a saucer-shaped test vehicle that will gather data about landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces.

LDSD is scheduled for launch today from 0830 HST at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

‘The agency is moving forward and getting ready for Mars as part of NASA’s Evolvable Mars campaign,’ said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington. ‘We fly, we learn, we fly again. We have two more vehicles in the works for next year.’

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
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

As NASA plans increasingly robotic missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human science expeditions to come, accommodating extended stays for explorers on the Martian surface will require larger and heavier spacecraft.

The objective of the LDSD project is to see if the rocket-powered test vehicle operates in near-space at high Mach numbers.

‘After years of imagination, engineering and hard work, we soon will get to see our Keiki o ka honua, our ‘boy from Earth,’ show us its stuff,’ said Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. ‘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.’

In a statement, Adler explained that a helium balloon is used to lift the vehicle to 120,000 feet

‘From there we drop it for about one and a half seconds,’ he said. ‘After that, it’s all about going higher and faster – and then it’s about putting on the brakes.’

A fraction of a second after dropping from the balloon, and a few feet below it, four small rocket motors will fire to spin up and gyroscopically stabilise the saucer. A half second later, a Star 48B long-nozzle, solid-fuelled rocket engine will ignite with 17,500 pounds of thrust, sending the test vehicle to the edge of the stratosphere.

‘Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere,’ said Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project at JPL. ‘We top out at about 180,000 feet and Mach 4. Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8, we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems.’

The project management team decided also to fly the two supersonic decelerator technologies that will be tested during two LDSD flight tests next year.

NASA said that if this year’s test vehicle flies as expected, the LDSD team may be in receipt of vital data on how the six metre supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R) and the supersonic parachute operate one year ahead of schedule.

The SIAD-R increases the vehicle’s size and, as a result, its drag. It is deployed at about Mach 3.8, quickly slowing the vehicle to Mach 2.5 where the parachute, the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, first hits the supersonic flow. About 45 minutes later, the saucer is expected to make a controlled landing onto the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.