NASA continues to refine parachute design for future Mars landing

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NASA continues to analyze the results from the second experimental landing technology test of its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD).

The test concluded Monday when the craft splashed down at 11:49 a.m. off Kauai.

During the flight, two decelerator technologies were tested, designed to slow down spacecraft traveling at supersonic speeds in preparation for a future human mission to Mars.

A high-altitude balloon carrying the LDSD test vehicle launched at 7:45 a.m. from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Kauai.

In the beginning, the test seemed to be going well.

As planned, at 11:35 a.m., officials said the vehicle separated from the balloon at about 120,000 feet above the ocean. An on-board rocket motor then took the vehicle to 180,000 feet, where the first braking technology, the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), deployed at about Mach 3 at 11:37 a.m.

Fourteen seconds after SIAD inflation, the test vehicle’s parachute was released into the supersonic slipstream, according to plan. Preliminary analysis of imagery and other data received during the test indicates the Supersonic Ringsail parachute deployed. This 100-foot-wide parachute is the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, more than double the area of the parachute used for the Mars Science Laboratory mission that carried the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars.

But excitement turned to disappointment when the chute began to generate large amounts of drag and a tear appeared in the canopy at about the time it was fully inflated.

Monday’s flight test was the second for the project. During the first flight on June 28, 2014, the main goal was to demonstrate and operate the vehicle through its entire mission. That flight also carried the two LDSD braking technologies, and the SIAD worked perfectly during the first test. The supersonic parachute, however, did not inflate as designed.

With the data from last year’s test, the LDSD team developed a new formula for this year’s chute, making it stronger and more curved into its top to help it survive the initial shock of supersonic wind.

“The technologies tested on LDSD are giving us data and insight into the capabilities we’ll need to land more mass than we currently can on Mars, which will enable more capable robotic missions, as well as human precursor missions to the Red Planet,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Scientists will now review the black box that was on the vehicle, which they say carries a goldmine of critical data.

Changes will be made and a new chute will be developed for a third testing sometime next year.

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