You might think what you just saw flying across the night sky was a spacecraft from another planet. But, in fact, it was just NASA’s new Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), which the agency is hoping to eventually use to bring large payloads to other planets. It might even be used in a mission to Mars as soon as 2018, with major tech demos set to take place over the next 24 months.
One of NASA’s tests will include a balloon launch to an altitude of 120,000 feet above sea level in Hawaii—a similar height to Felix Baumgartner’s wild free fall. At this point, the LDSD will then be further carried at supersonic speeds up to an incredible 180,000 feet using a rocket, where it will then come racing back down to Earth. Once the capsule reaches 2,600 mph (Mach 3.5), NASA’s LDSD will use its Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), filling it with pressurized air. That air is what gives the craft its flying saucer appearance, allowing it to further slow down until a parachute is deployed, safely returning LDSD back to the ground.
NASA is currently developing two different variations of the LDSD: one for smaller payloads (robots, instruments, etc.), and one for larger payloads, including supplies and humans. NASA doesn’t technically have plans to use the LDSD for any Mars missions just yet, but tests are being done with the hope that it could handle such an enterprise. As of now, the LDSD is capable of carrying and landing payloads up to 3 tons, giving NASA much more flexibility when planning future missions.
NASA this week published a video explaining how the LDSD’s “brake” system will work, and why it’s important to test when planning for Mars-like conditions. So that flying saucer-like spacecraft you see floating down from the sky isn’t actually “unidentified,” but you’d be forgiven for thinking we were being invaded by an extraterrestrial species. Nope, just NASA.