That saucer-shaped UFO you see streaming across the sky is just a NASA experiment. Having finished development on its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) vehicle, the agency has scheduled a test flight for June 3 in Hawaii. Despite looking like a more advanced balloon boy hoax, the craft is actually integral to NASA’s plans to set foot on the surface of Mars.
The LDSD is designed to slow the descent of heavy payloads that would be required for a successful Mars landing. SpaceX, incidentally, is working on its own system for landing on Mars. NASA’s saucer-shaped vehicle will test an inflatable decelerator and parachute system at high altitudes and speeds on June 3, giving the agency valuable data on navigating the Martian planet.
NASA has already landed spacecraft on Mars, but those pretty much maxed out the descent and landing capabilities of current technologies, Space.com noted. If the LDSD works, it could pave the way for much heavier payloads, which would include equipment and people. NASA said it hopes to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, with more unmanned missions planned for 2020s.
When the June 3 test takes place, NASA will use a balloon to carry the test vehicle to an altitude of 23 miles; at this point the LDSD’s rocket booster will kick in, bringing it up to 34 miles up. Once it reaches that height, NASA will turn on the vehicle’s Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (SIAD) and parachute, giving researchers an idea of how it performs in Mars-like conditions.
If all goes according to plan, NASA will be one step closer toward one day shuttling humans to Mars. In addition to the June 3 test, two more are scheduled for next summer.