As NASA prepares to send more spacecraft, and eventually humans, to Mars, its scientists are having to rethink the parachute. Mars is what NASA calls a tricky "in-between" environment: unlike the Moon, its atmosphere is too thick to land with rockets alone, but it's too thin for even a huge parachute to gain much traction. Its missions so far have used a combination of the two, along with other means of slowing a lander. But the larger and more ambitious the craft, the more difficult this becomes.
To address this problem, NASA is trying to develop alternatives with the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program, and it's looking at what is basically a high-tech combination of a balloon and a flying saucer. The saucer, which will come in 6-meter and 8-meter versions, creates huge amounts of drag with an inflatable donut, slowing a payload down enough for a 30.5-meter parachute to take over. The system was tested over Hawaii last summer — NASA even put up a video of the craft falling from near-space. It's going back for another test flight in June, but at 2:30PM ET, you can watch NASA give it a preliminary test and answer questions about the mission.
This afternoon, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will be putting the saucer on a spin table to make sure it's balanced properly for flight. LDSD team members will also be around to answer questions submitted by viewers. There's more information about the craft on the project home page, including a fact sheet and a gallery of photos from its last outing. If everything goes right, we could see the drag system in action on Mars by 2020.
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