Another partial success in the second test of NASA’s new Mars landing system

The flying saucer used to test the LDSD system prepared for its second test (Photo NASA)
The flying saucer used to test the LDSD system prepared for its second test (Photo NASA)

Yesterday NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) system, which will be used to land vehicles that can be very big on Mars, completed its second test over the Pacific Ocean. The result was only partially positive because the huge parachute that is part of this system deployed but didn’t inflate properly.

Almost exactly one year ago, NASA conducted the first test of the LDSD system and there was a problem with the parachute too. When I read the news, I thought that the flying saucer-shaped test vehicle shaped got torn to pieces, instead it endured a splash down more violent than expected.

The LDSD system is composed of two parts and is designed to decelerate and allow the landing of heavy vehicles on Mars: a part composed of a donut-shaped decelerator called Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) and a big parachute called Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute, much larger than the one used by Curiosity.

The test conducted yesterday replicated the last year’s one: the flying saucer was launched from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in the Hawaii Islands, was carried by a balloon to about 36,500 meters (about 120,000 feet) above sea level, its engine lifted it up to almost 55,000 meters (about 180,000 feet) of altitude at a speed of Mach 4. At that point, the descent phase started.

The SIAD began operating, decelerating the flying saucer to about Mach 2.4 and at that point it was up to the parachute to be opened for the last stage of the descent. After the problems of the first test, the parachute got modified but obviously not enough because it got deployed but didn’t inflate properly.

The parachute of the LDSD system is really huge because with its 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter is the largest supersonic parachute ever tested. The tests are used exactly to verify that systems are working as intended and, if not, to gather the data needed to solve the problems that emerge. NASA engineers will examine the data collected in this new test and modify the parachute again.

The LDSD system will be used to land vehicles much heavier than the Mars Rover Curiosity on Mars and it will take years before it’s used. The next test will probably take place next year, hoping that the parachute gets perfected.

A NASA clip showing the important moments of yesterday’s test:

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