In an effort to design spacecraft tailored for missions to Mars, scientists at NASA are taking a page right out of your run-of-the-mill science fiction novel: The space agency is preparing to test a flying saucer.
Technically, NASA’s new toy is called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), and scientists plan to test-drive the craft Thursday in Hawaii. (Other potential launch dates include June 7, 9, 11, and 14.) The LDSD will collect data about landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces.
Rising High and Falling
Scientists will use a gigantic helium balloon — about as large as the Rose Bowl when fully inflated — to float the LDSD to an altitude of about 23 miles above the islands. Then, the balloon and vehicle will separate, signaling four small motors to fire and gyroscopically stabilize the saucer. After that, a larger rocket engine will kick in and propel the craft into the stratosphere at a clip four times the speed of sound.
After that speed boost, scientists will deploy two new braking technologies — essentially an inflatable doughnut — to slow the ship down. It will eventually parachute back to Earth to make an ocean landing in the Pacific, logging a round trip of about 45 minutes.
Scientists say success will be measured in the spacecraft’s ability to hit its speed and altitude targets and generally fly as advertised.
Watch the Launch
The rarified air up high in the stratosphere is the closest earthly match to the atmosphere of Mars. In order to send humans and cargo to Mars, braking and landing technologies will be crucial.
NASA plans to broadcast the test flight with several onboard cameras and live commentary from engineers, and the launch window opens at 8:30 a.m. Hawaiian time (2:30pm EDT) Thursday. You can watch the test live below.