June 29, 2014
NASA launched a “flying saucer” on the weekend that will enable the U.S. space agency to test technologies that one day will be key in transporting humans to Mars, and the initial flight of the disk-shaped craft was a dubbed a success when it landed in the expected spot in the Pacific Ocean.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD – better known, even at NASA, as the “flying saucer” – was carried aloft into the upper reaches of the atmosphere attached to a gigantic balloon on Saturday morning from the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Despite the fact that the craft’s parachute did not fully deploy upon the conclusion of the mission, NASA was able to recover the saucer at the planned time on Saturday afternoon when the disk detached from the balloon and landed in the ocean.
The $150 million mission was aimed at creating an alternative to the technologies developed decades ago that the U.S. space agency continues to use for its Mars exploration missions with the objective of one day sending humans to the Red Planet.
The helium-filled balloon lifted the LDSD to about 36,000 meters (118,000 feet, or more than 22 miles) above the earth, where it then detached from the saucer just as an attached rocket ignited, carrying the craft up to 54,000 meters (177,000 feet, or about 34 miles) at four times the speed of sound.
The flight allowed NASA experts to test the vehicle’s performance in an atmosphere similar to that of Mars. The Red Planet’s atmosphere is very thin, similar to that found at the altitude of 54,000 meters (34 miles) above the earth’s surface.
Once it had completed its ascent, the disk deployed a specially-designed parachute to slow its descent back to Earth, and three hours later it landed in the Pacific Ocean.
NASA is planning to conduct more saucer flights soon to continue testing the craft’s capabilities, but it declared the maiden flight a success.