So what does an agency like NASA do after making a daring new type of landing with the Mars Curiosity rover? Try to make it even better for next time.
NASA is readying a new technology for landing on the Red Planet that is supposed to help brake the spacecraft in the atmosphere by inflating a buffer around the heat shield to slow things down. And after testing this so-called “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator” on a rocket sled in January and April, the team is ready for the next major test: heading aloft.
As early as June 3, NASA will strap a test device below a high-altitude balloon and send it up to 120,000 feet — about the same altitude that Felix Baumgartner jumped from in 2012. The device will then drop from the balloon sideways, spinning like a football, and reach a velocity of four times the speed of sound. Then the LDSD will inflate, if all goes as planned, and NASA will evaluate how well it performs.
The agency hopes to use this technology to land heavier and heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet. If the testing goes as scheduled and the funding is available, NASA plans to use an LDSD on a spacecraft as early as 2018.
“You wanna go to Mars, you wanna go big? Then you gotta test big here,” says mechanical engineer Michael Meacham, and testing big is exactly what he and other engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have done to develop a new supersonic parachute for future Mars landings.
The process of putting things onto Mars has traditionally used the same couple of tried-and-true methods: inflatable, shock-absorbing bouncers and large parachutes combined with retro-rockets (most recently seen in the famous “Seven Minutes of Terror” Curiosity landing in August 2012.) But both methods are limited in how large and massive of an object can safely be placed on the Martian surface. For even larger-scale future missions, new technology will have to be developed to make successful landings possible.
Enter the LDSD, or Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, an enormous parachute — similar to the one used by Curiosity except bigger — that can slow the descent of even more massive payloads through the thin Martian atmosphere.
Of course, part of the development process is testing. And in order to run such a large chute through the same sorts of rigors it would experience during an actual Mars landing, JPL engineers had to step outside of the wind tunnel and devise another method.
The one they came up with involves a rocket sled, a Night Hawk helicopter, a 100-lb steel bullet, a kilometer-long cable (and lots and lots of math.) It’s an experiment worthy of “Mythbusters”… watch the video above to see how it turned out.
“When we land spacecraft on Mars, we’re going extremely fast… we have got to slow down. So we use a parachute. And we use a really BIG parachute.”
– Michael Meacham, Mechanical Engineer at JPL
Watch the video above to the two-minute mark (and beyond) and we guarantee a brilliant start to your Friday. “Enter Sandman” indeed, Metallica. Look past the flames and thrust, however, and you will see a parachute test in action that could help spacecraft land safely on Mars one day.
This is an undated “rocket sled” test of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, a technology aiming to be a more advanced way to bring spacecraft to Mars besides the 1970s-era Viking parachutes that were used as late as the Curiosity mission.
And supersonic flight tests of this technology will take place this year and next, according to NASA. The technology could be used on spacecraft as early as 2018, the agency added.
“NASA seeks to use atmospheric drag as a solution, saving rocket engines and fuel for final maneuvers and landing procedures,” the agency states on the project’s web page. “The heavier planetary landers of tomorrow, however, will require much larger drag devices than any now in use to slow them down — and those next-generation drag devices will need to be deployed at higher supersonic speeds to safely land vehicle, crew and cargo.”
“One of the tests on my LDSD project, which combines the Navy version of a Blackhawk helicopter, a giant 110 foot parachute, 3000 pounds of rope, a very big pulley, four rockets, and a railroad track in the desert. The test successfully uncovered a design flaw in the parachute before we flew one like it on a much more expensive test — which is exactly what this test was for,” wrote collaborator Mark Adler (a fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was a mission manager for the Spirit rover) on Google Plus.
As part of this project, NASA is testing three devices. The first is a huge parachute (30.5 meters, or 100 feet) that will deploy when the spacecraft is at about 1.5 to 2 times the speed of sound to slow it down.
At faster speeds, NASA also plans inflatable aerodynamic decelerators, which it describes as “very large, durable, balloon-like pressure vessels.” These devices are being tested in two versions: six-meter and eight-meter (19.7 feet and 26.2 feet). They are designed to balloon around the spacecraft to slow it down from 3.5 times the speed of sound to at least twice the speed of sound, if not lower.
“All three devices will be the largest of their kind ever flown at speeds several times greater than the speed of sound,” NASA stated.
The project is a NASA technology demonstration mission led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This test and similar ones were conducted at the conducted at the U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Calif. More videos and information are available at LDSD’s webpage.
Huge hat-tip to @marsroverdriver for highlighting this on his Twitter account yesterday (Thursday).