The new spacecraft is a “15-foot wide, 7,000-pound aerodynamic test vehicle”. It was designed with the purpose of exploring new technologies that could one day help astronauts land on Mars. Some compared the vehicle to a flying saucer but those with an empty stomach might look at it and say it looks just like a pie.
The initial test was similar to what a mechanic examines in order to check if the wheels of a car are balanced. During the trial, the vehicle rotated with a maximum of 30 revolutions per minute. Paul Lytal, an engineer involved in the project explained:
“What we are trying to do here is make sure the center of the mass is as close to where the spin motor will go as possible.”
The trial’s next stage will take place in a few weeks and it involves shipping the vehicle to Hawaii where engineers will use a balloon roughly the size of Rose Bowl to lift the “flying saucer” 160,000 feet above the ground. After reaching that altitude, the vehicle will be taken with the help of a rocket 20,000 feet higher, reaching the stratosphere.
On Mars, the atmosphere is 1% as dense as that of Earth’s, similar to the conditions found in the stratosphere. This is why scientists will lift the spacecraft up in the stratosphere, so they can test the vehicle’s decelerating capacities.
Kevin Burke, flight systems manager for the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project (or LDSD) explained:
“The thing about Mars is it has just enough atmospheres to help you out, and just enough to give you trouble.”
NASA has been using the same parachute design since 1976 when the Viking probe first landed on Mars. The agency still relies on this method to help landers and rovers safely touch down on the Red Planet’s surface because it’s efficient but it’s not enough when wanting to land larger spacecrafts or people.
An identical test was conducted in Hawaii last year when the LSDS team evaluated two novel decelerating technologies, one of which failed dramatically. The other one worked perfectly. Since then, the team made the necessary changes and is now waiting for the forthcoming Hawaii trial.
Image Source: SEN