‘Fly­ing saucer’s’ parachute is a let­down

NASA again fails to slow the ve­hi­cle’s de­scent from high above Earth.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Karen Ka­plan karen.ka­plan@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LATkarenka­plan

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.

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