NASA launches flying saucer in tests for possible manned mission to Mars

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(Credit: NASA)

KAUAI, Hawaii — NASA’s new flying saucer-shaped spacecraft lifted off from its launch pad at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range facility in Kauai, Hawaii, Saturday morning, after several previous weather-related delays this month.

The space agency said its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, launched at 8:40 a.m., carried aloft by a giant balloon on a test flight to ultimately test landing technologies for a future human mission to Mars. The testing was expected to last several hours.

The ability to safely land a hurtling spacecraft moving at multiple times the speed of sound is crucial to any future mission to Mars or for any human spaceflight mission in the future.

NASA described the steps of Saturday’s test flight in a press release. A giant balloon lifts the disc-like LDSD to a high altitude of some 120,000 feet, more than 20 miles above Earth. Then the spacecraft’s rockets fire, taking it to 180,000 feet — the top reaches of the stratosphere — where the supersonic speed test begins. A donut-shaped tube, then inflates around the saucer, which begins the deceleration process. And, last, a giant parachute deploys to slow the craft down as it floats back to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific.

Saturday’s flight was the first of three LDSD flights to help scientists determine how the spaceship flies.

The results of the LDSD test Saturday was not immediately clear.

Testing the actual landing technologies will come later, according to the space agency.

Current technology for decelerating from high speeds during re-entry into the atmosphere to the final stages of landing on Mars, for example, dates back to NASA’s Viking Program, which put two landers on the Martian surface in 1976.

The basic Viking parachute design has been used ever since. It was successfully used again in 2012 to deliver the rover Curiosity to Mars.

Curiosity, by the way, just celebrated the anniversary of its first Martian year on the Red Planet.

NASA will need new and improved landing technologies to handle the larger spaceships of tomorrow and land them on rocky surfaces.