PACIFIC MISSILE RANGE, KAUAI (CBS SF) -- The flying saucer shapes of science fiction could actually prove to be the most efficient way to enter an extraterrestrial planet's atmosphere, and on June 2nd, NASA plans to test that exact shape in a supersonic flight high over the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai.
The flying saucer is the vehicle of choice for NASA's "Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator" or LDSD experiment.
NASA is trying to find ways to safely land humans and robots on Mars and also return large, heavy cargo to Earth. If mission planners want to send, say, a two-story house to Mars, they need a new technology to do it.
The shape involves a large disk, surrounded by an inflatable inner tube and parachute, designed to slow the spacecraft as it plummets through an extraterrestrial atmosphere.
"The concept of using an inflatable device to increase the drag of a spacecraft has been around since the 1960's, when NASA was first beginning to think about how to land spacecraft on other planets," said LDSD scientist Ian Clark. "However, the shape being tested in June, the inner-tube, has never been tested at these sizes or supersonic conditions before."
Instead of firing rockets to slow down an incoming spacecraft, the shape would use its shape to slow down, and less fuel to carry means more cargo can be packed on board.
"The ultimate goal is to land humans on the surface of Mars. But, before we get there, I would love to land payloads like larger, more capable rovers, rockets that return science-rich samples of Martian soil back to Earth, small greenhouses that test our ability to grow plants in the Martian environment, and even factories that can take the Martian atmosphere and turn it into rocket fuel that could be used by human explorers to bring them home," said Clark.
In the test in the Hawaiian islands, NASA will carry the spaceship up to 120,000 feet using a balloon, then release it, letting rockets ignite to push it up another 60,000 feet for a height of 180,000 feet above the planet.
Four GoPro cameras will catch the action and stream it back to observers on earth.
If the flying saucer works as expected, NASA will be able to continue development of the spaceship with more testing next year.
Of course, people who believe in UFOs would argue that NASA's test will prove what intelligent lifeforms already know--the flying saucer shape is a great way to land on an alien planet.
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