‘Flying saucer’s’ parachute is a letdown
NASA again fails to slow the vehicle’s descent from high above Earth.
Cheers turned to groans in a NASA control room Monday as a massive parachute designed to slow the descent of a “f lying saucer” vehicle failed to unfurl properly for the second year in a row.
“Partial chute,” one of the mission managers said on a live feed from NASA TV.
A camera mounted to the saucer-shaped vehicle — of- ficially known as the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD — showed several cords stretch out behind the test craft as it fell toward Earth from a height of about 180,000 feet. Engineers applauded as the reddish chute appeared behind the LDSD.
But the supersonic parachute did not deploy according to plan. It took about 200 seconds for the LDSD to splash down in the Pacific Ocean west of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.
Until then, the test of the LDSD appeared to be on track.
A high-altitude balloon lifted the saucer 120,000 feet above sea level. Then, at “drop time,” a 1,000-foot cable detached from the 7,000pound vehicle. Four small motors caused the saucer to spin and stabilize as a rocket engine powered by solid fuel kicked in to carry the craft to an altitude of 180,000 feet.
It took about a minute for the LDSD to reach its maximum altitude, traveling at four times the speed of sound.
Two cameras aboard the test vehicle showed a doughnut-shaped ring inf late around the outer edge. The supersonic inf latable aerodynamic decelerator, or SIAD, increased the saucer’s diameter from 15 feet to 20 feet, creating drag to slow it down.
Engineers watching the test from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge applauded as the doughnut inflated as designed.
But the big test involved a supersonic parachute that’s twice as big as the one used to ferry the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars.
In last year’s test, the parachute frayed and tore as soon as it was unfurled.
“We have a brand-new design of the parachute that we will be testing this year,” Dan Coda, a mechanical engineer at JPL, said shortly before the test. “To have a fully successful day, we really want the parachute to work.” But it didn’t. To figure out why, JPL specialists will examine the remains of the chute, which measures 100 feet across. They will also analyze the high-resolution video recorded by the cameras as well as data stored in a black box that will also be fished out of the water.
The flying saucer isn’t designed to carry humans to Mars. But if all goes according to plan, it will play an instrumental role in getting them safely to the Martian surface.