The United States has a rich history of flying saucers, not just from UFO reports, but actual experimental planes that flew, or rather hovered, in the 1950s.
While those planes didn’t work out so well, NASA has been busy with a flying saucer concept of its own. That concept will actually fly on Thursday.
The agency is testing something called the low-density supersonic decelerator (LDSD), better known as a flying saucer, because that’s just what it looks like.
The purpose of the futuristic (or retro) looking LDSD is to test bigger and stronger parachutes which we’ll need to safely land a spacecraft on future missions to Mars.
After yesterday’s launch from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, was scrapped because waves were too high to successfully recover the LDSD when it returns to Earth. The launch is planned for around 1:30 pm eastern time June 3rd.
The LDSD is an important step toward a successful Mars mission. It also marks NASA continuing to push American innovation forward, after years of being starved of funds and attention.
Because Mars has a thin atmosphere, the kind of parachutes we use on Earth aren’t enough slow down a spacecraft for a safe landing. While a manned mission to Mars is still a ways off, the LDSD’s technology will probably be used to improve parachute technology for the next rover that will be sent to Mars. Each of the previous martian rovers have used the same parachute design first invented in 1976.
The LDSD’s parachute system actually consists of three devices.
The first two are called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (SIADs), which inflate as the spacecraft reaches Mars, increasing the surface area, creating drag, which slows it down.
Then there’s the Supersonic Ringsail parachute, a massive 100-foot diameter rig, to compensate for Mars’ thin air.
This combination system will increase the weight a spacecraft can be for a safe Mars landing from 3,300 pounds to between 4,400 and 6,600 pounds. It should also improve landing accuracy from within six miles to within two. For rovers this accuracy isn’t a huge factor but in a human mission accuracy could be the difference between life and death.
For viewers who want to see the test live, with cool camera angles all over the spacecraft, tune into the NASA stream, here, around Noon Thursday.
Update: NASA has again posponed the test, this time until Thursday, June 4th around noon