NASA flying saucer falls from the sky as planned, but fails

9 Jun 2015

The LDSD craft prior to second test on 29 May. Image via NASA

After a number of postponed landings, NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) craft, jokingly referred to as a flying saucer because of its shape, finally completed its second test, falling safely to Earth.

It’s been over a week since the NASA ‘flying saucer’ was first scheduled to launch as part of continued testing of the craft, which NASA hopes will one day allow much bigger payloads to be sent into space to our nearest neighbour Mars as part of a manned exploration mission.

The craft began its test journey at 17.45 GMT on 8 June and slowly began to rise to 120,000ft with the help of a weather balloon.

However, to give it an accurate test landing, the LDSD’s engine fired up and launched it a further 60,000ft above the Earth’s surface, where the atmosphere strength is equal to Mars’s own weak atmosphere.

It then proceeded to freefall until the right moment when the LDSD finally got itself into position and deployed its parachute, the largest-ever deployed, measuring more than 30m in diameter and which, when fully deployed, is the same length from craft to parachute as a Boeing 747 airliner.

The LDSD snapped as it detaches from the weather balloon during last year's test. Image via NASA

The NASA flying saucer snapped as it detaches from the weather balloon during last year’s test. Image via NASA

Oh, chute!

Sadly for yesterday’s test, it was a case of ‘oh, chute’ for the NASA team as, according to those analysing and watching the craft as it descended, the supersonic parachute deployed but failed to inflate, showing once again the potential difficulties of sending teams of human beings to the red planet.

So far, the heaviest payload sent to Mars has been the Curiosity rover, which weighed approximately one tonne and was at the limits of what the lander and the 15m-wide parachute was capable of landing safely on the Martian surface.

This makes it two-out-of-two for failed tests for the LDSD supersonic parachute, with NASA scientists having last year seen their parachute tear to shreds under the strains of falling at high speeds from 180,000ft above.

The event was broadcast live on Ustream for all to see and, if you fancy watching a dizzying video, then check out NASA’s highlight reel.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic