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Flying Saucers! Circular Inflatable Decelerator Could Increase Martian Cargo Capacity

The system by which we drop stuff off on Mars is older than you might think. In 1976, the Viking program dumped two landers onto the red planet using the same parachute design we’ve more recently used to deliver landers like Opportunity and Curiosity. But delivering the one-ton Curiosity with this parachute was probably pushing it, and as prospective payloads are only increasing, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is now designing new deceleration plans for getting heavier stuff to Mars in a graceful fashion. The natural assumption would be that you could just make a bigger parachute, but to open a chute bigger than the traditional 51′ diameter one at a high speed, the descending spacecraft would need to first slow down by other means. The flying saucer you see above may hold the answer to this predicament.  And no, this doesn’t mean that we’re borrowing designs from extra terrestrial space crafts. Not necessarily…

Curiosity IP

“We were really pushing the envelope on what we can squeeze out of that parachute with Curiosity,” said Mark Adler of JPL, indicating that the super heavy Curiosity rover was about as much as the traditional parachute design could handle. (JPL)

The project is called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerators (LDSD) mission. The challenge is slowing down a massive hunk of cargo that is falling towards the hard Martian surface faster than the speed of sound. The idea behind the flying saucer shape is that when the spacecraft is entering the Martian atmosphere (which there isn’t much of), an inner-tube like structure on the rim of the vehicle will rapidly inflate, increasing the diameter of the falling object from 15′ to 20′, thus slowing it to the point where a new, larger parachute could be opened.

The video below explains how the larger 100′ Mars entry parachute was tested here on Earth. By using what looks like a large-scale Rube Goldberg machine, JPL technicians found a way to simulate the same amount of force that would be wrenching on the parachute during a Mars entry. As you’ll see towards the end of the video, there are still some adjustments that need to be made…

Will it work? We’ll find out in Hawaii. This June at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii, a model spacecraft with the decelerating ring installed will be shot skyward, where rockets will push it to 3.5X the speed of sound. This will simulate the speed at which it would be falling towards the Martian surface during entry. When the craft hits this speed, the saucer should inflate and take the speed down to a modest 2.5x the speed of sound, at which point the new mega-chute could be safely deployed.

Got any bright ideas for a graceful entry onto Mars? Let us know below. Do you think a flying saucer design is the answer or should we really be looking at something closer to the USS Enterprise and/or Millenium Falcon?

HT: Los Angeles Times

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