NASA let a group of journalists come to one of their major research facilities to witness one of their newest projects: a flying saucer that will soon leave from Hawaii to explore the area around Mars to give researchers a better idea on how to land bigger payloads on the planet. NASA needs to find a new form of technology since it plans on sending larger vehicles to Mars for exploration. Currently, NASA has only used the parachute system, but this would not work with a heavy payload vehicle.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory here – one of NASA’S leading research and development centers – gave journalists a peek at the future Wednesday. Get out your notebooks and scratch out the words, “flying saucer” and put in, “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator” (LDSD).
That’s what they’re calling the new, rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle they will be propelling into near-space this June from the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. The purpose: to investigate how to land on Mars with bigger payloads.
NASA’s LDSD aims to to slow down the descent of a large payload at supersonic speeds through the thin atmosphere of a planet like Mars by creating atmospheric drag.
Looking almost exactly like a miniature version of the spaceship that beguiled Richard Dreyfus in 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the new LDSD is propped up on a special, multipronged trailer in the five-story room where it was assembled here. The press had to don surgeon hats, booties, and special outerwear to get close, while scientists explained the advancing needs of exploring Mars.
The new saucer, er, LDSD, is about 6 feet high and 22 feet in diameter.
“We expect that as we go forward with our Mars missions that we will go to larger and larger vehicles,” said Mark Adler, NASA’s LDSD demonstration mission manager. He says the current technology for landing in non-Earth atmospheres dates back to NASA’s Viking program, which put two landers on Mars in 1976. The same, basic parachute design has been used ever since – as recently as 2012 to deposit the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet.