If you happen to see a large, disc-shaped object plummeting to the ground in Kauai, Hawaii, in June, know that it’s not a flying saucer in the extraterrestrial sense, but a system fashioned by NASA.
The space agency’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project will be testing the rocket-powered vehicle, launching it to near space in a couple of months. If successful, the vehicle could help bring large payloads to Mars or other planets.
The LDSD is meant to help slow down a vehicle as it comes in for a landing. The latest Mars rover Curiosity, for example, used a combination of parachutes and rockets to land, but larger vehicles would require an even more extensive system.
Mike Meacham, a mechanical engineer at the laboratory, described LDSD as a “much larger, supersonic parachute.”
“When we land spacecraft on Mars, we’re going extremely fast. We have got to slow down, so we use a parachute — we use a really big parachute,” he said.
When you consider that Curiosity cost about $2 billion, landing similar devices or valuable materials in the future intact will be vital.
“It may seem obvious, but the difference between landing and crashing is stopping,” Allen Chen at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California told New Scientist.
Why are they testing the LDSD in Hawaii? Meacham explained that previous parachute testing used to happen in a wind tunnel, but newer parachute systems are too large for these spaces.
Watch Meacham explain the complex test:
“You want to go Mars and you want to go big, then you got to test big. You got to be a little crazy sometimes if you want to do the crazy things,” Meacham said.
Robert Braun at Georgia Tech told New Scientist that the deceleration system could be a “game-changer.”
“You could take a mass to the surface equal to something like one to 10 Curiosities. Think about it like a bridge for humans to Mars. This is the next step in a sequence of technologies that would need to be developed,” Braun said.