Trying to work out how to safely deliver astronauts to the surface of Mars, NASA will be testing flying saucers.
Following a weather delay, the second test of a prototype saucer is due to be carried out over the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.
What does Nasa’s flying saucer look like?
It is a 15ft wide disc weighing 7,000 pounds with a white dome on top and a rocket underneath.
Does it have a futuristic name?
No. It’s official name is the the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD). It’s bein launched from Hawaii and the prototype has been christened Kalani Ike Ike Ka Honua, which is Hawaiian for Highest Boy in Heaven. Nasa may need to think of something snappier.
What will happen in the test?
An enormous balloon will lift the LDSD from a military base on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to an altitude of 120,000 feet, or more than 20 miles, which will take two hours.
It will then be freed from the balloon and its rocket motor will be ignited, carrying it at supersonic speed to 34 miles above the Earth,
The idea is to simulate the conditions that would be encountered in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Before the saucer drops back to Earth a tube, called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, will inflate around it. Scientists say the process looks likea puffer fish expanding.
This will create drag and slow the saucer down from Mach 4, four times the speed of sound, as it descends. Rockets will be fired to stabilise the saucer.
The key part of the test will be the deployment of a giant supersonic parachute which is designed to slow the saucer’s fall.
What do we know about the parachute?
It is called the Supersonic Ringsail and is the largest supersonic parachute every used.
It measures more than 100ft across when deployed. That is twice as big the one used to land the Curiosity rover, which weighed one ton, on Mars in 2011.
Mark Adler, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: “This test is centred on how our newly designed supersonic parachute will perform. What we will be looking most closely for is to see what happens when at Mach 2.35 our supersonic parachute is deployed.”
What is its ultimate purpose of the saucer?
The saucer will eventually be used for landing heavy equipment gently on the surface of Mars without smashing it.
If large payloads can be delivered safely that will allow for complex human missions to the planet.
It will also allow equipment to be landed at high altitudes thereby facilitating the exploration of more areas of Mars.
The parachute is key because it marks a departure from the ones Nasa has used ever since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on Mars in 1976.
A Nasa spokesman said: “As we plan 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,”
What will the rest of us be able to see during the test?
Everything. Nasa is proud of its flying saucer and wants everyone to get a look. Video from four cameras on board will be relayed live on Nasa TV. Mark Adler said: “You get to see all the same video I do, at the same time I do. We think we have a great design ready for the challenge, but the proof is in the pudding and the pudding will be made live for everyone to see.”
Has the flying saucer been tested before?
Yes. there was a previous test last summer in the Pacific. The saucer performed successfully but there was a problem with the parachute which only partially unfurled.
What time is take off?
Weather permitting the flying saucer will take off from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai at 7.30am Hawaii time (6.30pm UK time). Wind conditions need to be calm so the saucer doesn’t drift on its decent. Sea conditions also have to be right so that it can be recovered successfully after splashdown.