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NASA postpones giant Mars parachute launch over Kauai

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 1:20 p.m. HST, Jun 2, 2014

There will be no launch Tuesday of a saucer-shaped test vehicle from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, NASA announced.

Weather conditions aren't expected to be ideal, leading to the postponement on what was the first opportunity to launch the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator.

Other potential launch dates include Thursday, Saturday and next Monday, Wednesday or Saturday, according to the space agency.

The LDSD will gather data about landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces.

"We use a helium balloon -- that, when fully inflated, would fit snugly into Pasadena's Rose Bowl -- to lift our vehicle to 120,000 feet," said Mark Adler, project manager for the LDSD at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "From there we drop it for about one and a half seconds. After that, it's all about going higher and faster -- and then it's about putting on the brakes."

A fraction of a second after dropping from the balloon, and a few feet below it, four small rocket motors will fire to spin up and gyroscopically stabilize the saucer. A half second later, a solid-fueled rocket engine will kick in with 17,500 pounds of thrust, sending the test vehicle to the edge of the stratosphere.

"Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere," said Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project. "We top out at about 180,000 feet and Mach 4. Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8, we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems."

An inflatable "doughnut" that increases the vehicle's size and, as a result, its drag, will be deployed at about Mach 3.8. It is designed to quickly slow the vehicle to Mach 2.5 where the parachute, the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, will be unfurled. About 45 minutes later, the saucer is expected to make a controlled landing onto the Pacific.

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