The test ends as the chute deploys, but it does not inflate
"We'll study data from this test to learn & improve," NASA tweets
NASA’s “flying saucer” took to the skies without trouble Monday, but one of the main technologies it was testing – a parachute meant to help future craft land on Mars – didn’t work as planned.
A giant supersonic parachute meant to slow the saucer-shaped Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator’s descent to the Pacific Ocean – one of two braking technologies that the craft was testing Monday – deployed but failed to inflate.
The craft safely splashed down into the ocean off the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, but the failure of the Supersonic Ringsail parachute to inflate will be a disappointment for NASA.
“We’ll study data from this test to learn & improve,” NASA said in a tweet.
This is the second parachute hitch for the LDSD; a parachute also failed to inflate when the craft was tested for the first time last year.
NASA has used parachutes to safely put landers on Mars going back to the 1970s, but it is developing and testing new parachutes and other devices to handle the landings of larger craft, including potentially those with astronauts.
Monday’s test began with an enormous balloon lifting the LDSD into the sky from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.
There were cheers in the control room as the balloon began lifting the vessel, but the joy was short lived.
Once the balloon reached the target height of 120,000 feet, more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) above Earth, mission controllers set the LDSD free to fire its rockets to go higher – 180,000 feet – before letting it descend.
On its descent, the first test braking technology worked, NASA said. The supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator – a balloonlike vessel – inflated around the craft, creating drag and slowing the saucer from Mach 3 to roughly Mach 2.4.
The parachute did not work out as well.
Updating decades-old technology
This time around, a new design is being tested: the Supersonic Ringsail parachute, which NASA says is the largest supersonic parachute ever tested for landing on Mars.
Current technology for the task – decelerating from high speeds during re-entry into the atmosphere, to the final stages of landing on Mars – dates back to NASA’s Viking Program, which put two landers on the Martian surface in 1976.
The basic Viking parachute design has been used ever since. It was successfully used again in 2012 to deliver the rover Curiosity to Mars.
NASA will need new and improved landing technologies to handle the larger spaceships of tomorrow and land them on rocky surfaces, as well as at higher elevations.
NASA scientists hope this saucer-shaped craft could be the key.
“As NASA plans ambitious robotic science missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human expeditions to come, the spacecraft needed to land safely on the Red Planet’s surface will become larger and heavier in order to accommodate explorers’ extended stays on the Martian surface,” the agency’s website said.
This means the supersonic parachute will have its work cut out to create sufficient atmospheric drag to slow the vehicles down so they can be landed safely. Using drag for deceleration means precious fuel can be saved for landing maneuvers.
A third test flight for the LDSD is scheduled for summer 2016.
CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Lauriel Cleveland and Amanda Barnett contributed to this report.