Cape Town - Yes, there really are flying saucers – but they’ll be on their way to Mars, rather than bringing aggressive invaders to Earth from the Red Planet in the way that the fictional comic books so often portray.
The prototype of these flying saucers – or Low-Density Supersonic Decelerators (LDSDs) – is being tested by space agency Nasa at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.
The experimental flight by this rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle was designed to investigate breakthrough technologies that would benefit future Mars missions, including those involving human exploration, Nasa explained.
During the experimental flight test on Tuesday night (South African time) officials were calling it an “engineering shake-out flight”.
A giant helium balloon “mother ship” was to have carried the test vehicle to an altitude of about 120 000 feet.
At that point it was to have been dropped from the balloon but with its booster rocket being fired almost immediately, accelerating and carrying it even higher to 180 000 feet to the very edge of the stratosphere.
The upper layers of the Earth’s stratosphere are the closest environment in which scientists and engineers can test technologies that will be subjected to the thin atmosphere of Mars.
Once in this very rarefied air high above the Pacific Ocean, the “flying saucer” was to have started a series of automated tests of breakthrough technologies designed to deliver heavier payloads to Mars.
“It only sounds like science fiction,” said Dr Tony Philipps, production editor at the Science@NASA news service.
Mark Adler, the project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the LDSD project, explained that after the test vehicle had been dropped from the balloon, it was “all about going higher and faster – and then it’s about putting on the brakes”.
Speaking before the flight, Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project at JPL, said the goal was to reach an altitude and velocity that simulated the kind of environment space vehicles would encounter when flying in the Martian atmosphere.
“We top out at about 180 000 feet and Mach 4 (about 4 900km/h). Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8 (about 4 655km/h), we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems.”
This is a 6m inflatable Kevlar tube called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, which the test vehicle should deploy around itself. Philipps described the decelerator as “essentially an inflatable doughnut” that increased the vehicle’s size and, hence, its drag.
It should have quickly slowed the test vehicle to Mach 2.5 (about 3 060km/h) when it was to have deployed its second new braking technology: a mammoth parachute called the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute – the largest of its kind ever flown.
After about 45 minutes, the “flying saucer” was expected to have made a controlled landing in the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.
The LDSD was built at JPL in Pasadena, California, and shipped to Kauai for final assembly and preparations before undergoing three weeks of testing, simulations and rehearsals ahead of yesterday’s planned launch.
Cutting-edge space technologies like the LDSD were “critical” to getting larger payloads to Mars and paving the way for future human explorers, Nasa said. Among other applications, this technology would enable delivery of the supplies and materials needed for long-duration missions to the Red Planet.
Although there was no guarantee this test would be successful, the LDSD team expected to learn a great deal regardless of the outcome, it added.
It has two more saucer-shaped test vehicles in the pipeline, with plans to fly them from Hawaii in the northern hemisphere summer next year.
Speaking before the flight, Adler said: “After years of imagination, engineering and hard work, we soon will get to see our Keiki o ka honua, our ‘boy from Earth’, show us its stuff. If our flying saucer hits its speed and altitude targets, it will be a great day.” - Cape Argus
l Visit www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/tdm/ldsd/ or nasa.gov/nasatv and www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2