NASA's 'flying saucer' readies for first test flight

Jun 03, 2014 by Dr. Tony Phillips
A saucer-shaped test vehicle holding equipment for landing large payloads on Mars is shown in the Missile Assembly Building at the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kaua‘i, Hawaii.

(Phys.org) —It only sounds like science fiction. To test a new technology for landing heavy payloads on Mars, NASA is about to drop a flying-saucer shaped vehicle from a helium balloon high above Earth's surface.

The first launch opportunity for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is June 3rd at 8:30 a.m. HST, when the launch window opens at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. Officials are calling it an "engineering shakeout flight."

3rd Update 4:20 PM EDT: Due to weather conditions, there will be no launch of the LDSD test vehicle Thursday, June 5. Other potential launch dates include June 7, 9, 11 and 14. The decision to move forward with another launch attempt of the LDSD test is made the day before each launch opportunity date.

"The agency is moving forward and getting ready for Mars as part of NASA's Evolvable Mars campaign," says Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington. As NASA plans increasingly ambitious robotic missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for human science expeditions to come, missions will require larger and heavier spacecraft. The objective of the LDSD project is to see if the cutting-edge, rocket-powered test vehicle operates as it was designed—in near-space at high Mach numbers.

The way NASA's saucer climbs to test altitude is almost as distinctive as the test vehicle itself.

This artist's concept shows the test vehicle for NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), designed to test landing technologies for future Mars missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"We use a helium balloon—that, when fully inflated, would fit snugly into Pasadena's Rose Bowl—to lift our vehicle to 120,000 feet," said Mark Adler, project manager for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "From there we drop it for about one and a half seconds. After that, it's all about going higher and faster—and then it's about putting on the brakes."

A fraction of a second after dropping from the balloon, and a few feet below it, four small rocket motors will fire to spin up and gyroscopically stabilize the saucer. A half second later, a Star 48B long-nozzle, solid-fueled rocket engine will kick in with 17,500 pounds of thrust, sending the test vehicle to the edge of the stratosphere.

"Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere," said Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project at JPL. "We top out at about 180,000 feet and Mach 4. Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8, we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems."

"After years of imagination, engineering and hard work, we soon will get to see our Keiki o ka honua, our 'boy from Earth,' show us its stuff," says Adler. "If our flying saucer hits its speed and altitude targets, it will be a great day."

The project management team decided also to fly two supersonic decelerator technologies that will be thoroughly tested during two more LDSD flight tests next year. If this year's flies as expected, the LDSD team may get a treasure-trove of data on how the 6-meter supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R) and the supersonic parachute operate a full year ahead of schedule.

The SIAD-R, essentially an inflatable doughnut that increases the vehicle's size and, as a result, its drag, is deployed at about Mach 3.8. It will quickly slow the vehicle to Mach 2.5 where the parachute, the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, first hits the supersonic flow. About 45 minutes later, the saucer is expected to make a controlled landing onto the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.

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User comments : 10

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shavera
not rated yet Jun 03, 2014
psh. Supersonic lithobraking ftw.
Modernmystic
2 / 5 (4) Jun 03, 2014
How much rocket fuel could you save by getting payloads to 120k feet on a routine basis?

They way I figure it that's about 22 miles up, about 20% of the way to LEO.
KBK
1 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2014
The helium is a bit expensive......it is also under priced and rarer than we are led to believe, so the idea of using helium is very much a false economy.

Besides the fact of how much helium it takes to get to 120kft, per pound of payload.

Rockets, with methane/oxy are actually more efficient, in all ways, regarding accountability, resources, and repeatability.

The biggest bugaboo is the environmental concern with the methane release, which I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done the math on.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2014
How much rocket fuel could you save by getting payloads to 120k feet on a routine basis?

They way I figure it that's about 22 miles up, about 20% of the way to LEO.
Again, research can answer most questions. This is the INTERNET.
http://en.wikiped.../Rockoon
http://www.sbir.g...l/351343
Modernmystic
3 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2014
How much rocket fuel could you save by getting payloads to 120k feet on a routine basis?

They way I figure it that's about 22 miles up, about 20% of the way to LEO.
Again, research can answer most questions. This is the INTERNET.
http://en.wikiped.../Rockoon


Indeed it is, and this is a FORUM where people TALK to each other using the INTERNET. You do understand that not everyone does things the way you do, how you expect them to, and how you'd like them to...uh, right?

Tell you what Otto, how about you do what Otto likes how he likes it and I'll do what I like to do and how I like to do it...oh wait that's the ONLY possible way to do it.......
philw1776
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
This is the kind of technology R&D that NASA should be doing. Pioneer new innovative technologies and then sponsor commercial development.
philw1776
5 / 5 (3) Jun 03, 2014
Modernmystic: It's not really that much about altitude as it is about velocity. The delta V (change in velocity) from the ground or from 120,000 feet to reach LEO is approximately 5 miles per second. Altitude does help somewhat with a rocket engine's ISP (specific impulse) but that's a minor factor.

In any case using 120,000 feet as 22% of the height to low LEO is not a valid approach to the problem.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2014
Indeed it is, and this is a FORUM where people TALK to each other using the INTERNET. You do understand that not everyone does things the way you do, how you expect them to, and how you'd like them to...uh, right?
Well... if we looked things up before we talked about them then we would know what we were talking about then wouldnt we?

I like to ask the INTERNET first before I ask here. Actually I dont ever ask here at all. Except when I ask why people dont bother to look things the fuck UP before they try to discuss them.

But then my question is only rhetorical sadly boohoo.
Modernmystic
3 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2014
Modernmystic: It's not really that much about altitude as it is about velocity. The delta V (change in velocity) from the ground or from 120,000 feet to reach LEO is approximately 5 miles per second. Altitude does help somewhat with a rocket engine's ISP (specific impulse) but that's a minor factor.

In any case using 120,000 feet as 22% of the height to low LEO is not a valid approach to the problem.


Thank you very much for that answer. I suspected that there must be a good reason and suspected it had to do with altitude not being much of a factor in velocity. Again, much appreciated.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 05, 2014
Well mm as it was from an anonymous poster who provided no quotes or references, you don't know if it's true or complete now do you? Did you google any of the facts he provided to see if they were right? You really that gullible?