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NASA Mars vehicle tested in supersonic descent off Kauai

  • NASA
    This image from a NASA live feed shows the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerators test vehicle falling back to the earth Monday morning.
  • NASA
    This image from NASA television shows the liftoff of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator test vehicle Monday morning on Kauai.
  • NASA
    This Friday photo shows part of the mission dress rehearsal for the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator.
  • NASA
    NASA workers prepare for the launch of the Mars supersonic decelerator test vehicle Monday morning.
  • NASA
    This screengrab from NASA television shows a balloon carrying the Mars test vehicle rising in the skies over Kauai.
  • NASA
    This photo taken Monday morning shows the mars vehicle just before its balloon launch from Kauai.
  • NASA
    The saucer-shaped Mars lander test vehicle is towed to the launch site on Kauai.

NASA is using the skies around Kauai to test new technology that it wants to use for landing larger spacecraft — and eventually astronauts — on Mars.

A giant balloon lifted the the test vehicle 120,000 feet into the atmosphere Monday before releasing it back to earth.

Four small rocket motors fired up to stabilize the flying saucer-like vehicle. Then a solid-fueled rocket engine with 175,000 pounds of thrust fired to send the test vehicle to the stratosphere at a speed of Mach 4, before deploying a doughnut-shaped ring below the vehicle and a giant parachute to decelerate the vehicle’s fall.

It appeared the ring deployed successfully, but the parachute only partially deployed. But the results of the test won’t be known until the vehicle splashes down and equipment aboard the launch vehicle is recovered.

The test is looking at technology designed to slow down a large landing vehicle as it falls through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds. The descent started at 34 miles above the Earth’s surface, where the environment is similar to Mars’ thin atmosphere.

The technology includes a doughnut-shaped ring that’s expected to inflate and slow down the flying saucer-shaped landing vehicle. A giant parachute is then expected to slow the descent further. This parachute is twice as big as the one that carried the Curiosity rover to Mars in 2012.

The technology being tested won’t be used on missions anytime soon. NASA may decide not to use the technology if it fails the test.

NASA has said it wants to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

The tube around the saucer inflated as planned during a similar test off Kauai last year. The vehicle decelerated from Mach 4.3 — more than four times the speed of sound — to Mach 2. But the giant parachute didn’t inflate. NASA says one of the main goals this time will be to test a redesigned parachute.

The supersonic parachute is 100 feet in diameter. It’s so big it won’t fit in the wind tunnels NASA typically uses to test parachutes.

The agency has been using the same basic parachute design to slow vehicles upon approaching Mars since twin Viking landers touched down on the planet in 1976.

The landing vehicle is being carried 23 miles into the atmosphere by the giant balloon. From there, a booster rocket will lift it up to 34 miles.

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