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NASA pleased with parachute re-entry from flying saucer test

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 6:44 p.m. HST, Aug 8, 2014

When NASA launched a flying saucer-shaped Mars re-entry test vehicle from Kauai on June 28, the parachute was ripped to shreds, but the test was a success.

"A good test is one where there are no surprises but a great test is one where you are able to learn new things, and that is certainly what we have in this case." said Ian Clark, principal investigator for the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project.

Clark, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the test provided "significant insight into the fundamental physics of parachute inflation. We are literally re-writing the books on high-speed parachute operations."

NASA released a time-lapse 2:08-minute video Friday of the launch and deployment with some spectacular views of the vehicle, parachute and Earth that it momentarily left behind.

NASA is testing new arresting capabilities for increasing payloads to be sent to Mars in years to come -- some of the first steps on the technology path to potentially landing humans, habitats and return rockets on the Red Planet and allow access to more of its surface by enabling landings at higher altitude sites.

The Kauai flights -- two more are planned -- represent the first supersonic parachute tests for NASA re-entry missions in more than 40 years.

The technology previously developed put two Viking landers on Mars in 1976. It was used again in 2012 to deliver the Curiosity rover to Mars.

NASA is using the very thin air high in the atmosphere above Kauai to duplicate Mars' low-density conditions.

A 34 million-cubic-foot helium balloon was used to launch the 7,000-pound LDSD from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

At an altitude of 120,000 feet, the test vehicle was released from the balloon and a solid rocket accelerated it to over four times the speed of sound to 180,000 feet.

A Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, a doughnut-shaped air brake, was deployed first, slowing the vehicle from 3.8 to 2.5 times the speed of sound.

The Supersonic Disksail Parachute, more than double the size of the parachute used for the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover, was then unfurled to slow the vehicle further -- and promptly showed some serious tearing.

High-definition video captured what happened.

"We see where those tears began, how they propagated, and otherwise how the parachute behaved as it began trying to inflate," Clark said.

He added that NASA now has a data set for two more test flights from Kauai beginning next June. 

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