High over the Pacific Ocean on Saturday, NASA's LDSD "flying saucer" spacecraft traveled at almost four times the speed of sound as it raced upwards toward the heavens. At approximately 180,000 feet, NASA successfully performed the craft's first crucial test imperative for a possible future Mars mission. But not everything went according to plan.
After deploying the craft's doughnut-shaped inflatable device, dubbed Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), NASA was able to slow the saucer's descent to a more manageable 2.5x the speed of sound. But upon deploying the LDSD's giant parachute—the second and most crucial part of NASA's test launch—the chute became tangled, and the spacecraft eventually splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. It was supposed to land gently.
If there was payload on that craft—or worse, humans—the mission would have been an unmitigated disaster. But luckily this was just a test, and NASA can use that data to improve upon the LDSD's systems. The agency is using a parachute system that dates back to the 1970s, but with heavier payloads and a larger overall chute—about 36 meters in diameter.
Stating the obvious, Dan Coatta, one of the mission specialists, said it appeared as though the chute didn't "deploy that well." NASA tested the LDSD technology at extremely high altitudes because they're most similar to the upper atmosphere of Mars.
NASA has already managed to land payloads on Mars, but those pretty much maxed out the descent and landing capabilities of current technologies. The technology NASA tested recently, however, should theoretically allow the agency to land much heavier payloads on the Red Planet, and hopefully send astronauts there by the 2030s; more unmanned missions, meanwhile, are planned for 2020s.
While NASA's test wasn't 100-percent successful, the LDSD's SIAD did successfully deploy, so it's just a matter of building on that. Despite the parachute's failure, NASA said it was satisfied with the $150 million test; this weekend's test was initially designed to "determine the flying ability of the vehicle." The two landing technologies deployed by NASA, including the failed parachute, were just bonus tests.
"This is an opportunity to look at the data and learn what [happened] and apply that for the next test," Coatta said.
NASA said this is just the first of three scheduled tests, which are all designed to evaluate new landing tech for future Mars missions.