Nasa deems fly­ing saucer test a suc­cess

Taranaki Daily News - - World -

Los Angeles – A saucer-shaped Nasa ve­hi­cle launched by bal­loon high into Earth’s at­mos­phere splashed down in the Pa­cific Ocean yes­ter­day, com­plet­ing a suc­cess­ful test of tech­nol­ogy that could be used to land on Mars.

Since the twin Vik­ing space­craft landed on the red planet in 1976, Nasa has re­lied on the same para­chute de­sign to slow lan­ders and rovers af­ter pierc­ing through the thin Mar­tian at­mos­phere.

The US$150 mil­lion ex­per­i­men­tal flight tested a novel ve­hi­cle and a gi­ant para­chute de­signed to deliver heav­ier space­craft and even­tu­ally as­tro­nauts.

De­spite small prob­lems like the gi­ant para­chute not de­ploy­ing fully, Nasa deemed the mis­sion a suc­cess.

‘‘What we just saw was a re­ally good test,’’ said Nasa en­gi­neer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia.

View­ers world­wide with an in­ter­net con­nec­tion fol­lowed por­tions of the mis­sion in real time thanks to cam­eras on the ve­hi­cle that beamed back lowres­o­lu­tion footage.

Af­ter tak­ing off at 11.40am from the Pa­cific Mis­sile Range Fa­cil­ity on the Hawai­ian is­land of Kauai, the bal­loon boosted the disc­shaped ve­hi­cle over the Pa­cific. Its rocket mo­tor then ig­nited, car­ry­ing the ve­hi­cle 55 kilo­me­tres high at su­per­sonic speeds.

The en­vi­ron­ment that high up is sim­i­lar to the thin Mar­tian at­mos­phere. As the ve­hi­cle pre­pared to drop back the Earth, a tube around it ex­panded like a Hawai­ian puffer fish, cre­at­ing at­mo­spheric drag to dra­mat­i­cally slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.

Then the para­chute un­furled and guided the ve­hi­cle to a splash­down about three hours later. At 33 me­tres in di­am­e­ter, the para­chute is twice as big as the one that car­ried the 1-tonne Cu­rios­ity rover through the Mar­tian at­mos­phere in 2011.

The test was post­poned six times be­cause of high winds. Winds need to be calm so that the bal­loon does not stray into no-fly zones.

En­gi­neers planned to an­a­lyse the data and con­duct sev­eral more flights next year be­fore de­cid­ing whether to fly the ve­hi­cle and para­chute on a fu­ture Mars mis­sion.

‘‘We want to test them here where it’s cheaper be­fore we send it to Mars to make sure that it’s go­ing to work there,’’ project man­ager Mark Adler of the Nasa Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory said dur­ing a pre-launch news con­fer­ence in Kauai early this month.

The tech­nol­ogy en­ve­lope needed to be pushed or else hu­man­ity would not be able to fly be­yond the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion in low- Earth or­bit, said Michael Gazarik, head of space tech­nol­ogy at Nasa head­quar­ters. Tech­nol­ogy de­vel- op­ment ‘‘is the surest path to Mars’’, Gazarik said at the brief­ing.

Pho­tos: REUTERS

Ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign: A saucer-shaped test ve­hi­cle, which holds equip­ment for land­ing large pay­loads on Mars, is lifted up by a high­alti­tude bal­loon at the US Navy’s Pa­cific Mis­sile Range Fa­cil­ity in Kauai, Hawaii.

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