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Watch NASA’s Flying Saucer Inflate on the Edge of Space

Late last month, NASA finally got to test its “flying saucer” — known more technically as the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) — which flew at the edge of space over Hawaii. But the flying saucer itself wasn’t being tested. That was just the test vehicle. What NASA scientists really wanted to test was an inner-tube wrapped around the saucer, to see if the extra drag could slow down an object going Mach 4 in a thin atmosphere. And now we have beautiful (and narrated) video of the test!

If we want to get larger payloads on Mars, like humans with adequate supplies, we have to figure out how to slow down our spacecraft. Mars, for example, doesn’t have an atmosphere like ours — it is much thinner. Without all that air to push against, any spacecraft entering the Martian air won’t get the same kind of deceleration that an object punching through our own atmosphere would. To add more drag and to slow a spacecraft down, NASA is testing the LDSD inner-tube to effectively increase the surface area of a craft and help slow it down in a thinner atmosphere.

LDSD Test 1The LDSD testing sequence.

The video above shows that after the saucer was brought up to altitude via balloon and accelerated to a few thousand miles per hour via rocket, the LDSD was successfully deployed.

LDSD GIF 1

That inner-tube cut the saucer’s speed in half.

LDSD GIF 2

But to slow down the test saucer the rest of the way, NASA attachment huge parachutes. These massive chutes were supposed to bring the craft down “gently” into the Hawaiian ocean, but there was one little problem…

LDSD GIF 3

The parachute tore itself apart in the turbulent and destructive supersonic winds.

But failure is always an option is science. In fact, we can learn much more from a failure than from a success. Now that NASA has data on what worked and what didn’t, the agency is planning two more tests of the LDSD beginning in June 2015. By then, their “flying saucer” should be able to do the most important part of flying — landing.

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