NASA put a new technology for landing on Mars through its paces Tuesday to help prep for a flight test from Hawaii this June.
Engineers subjected the saucer-shaped Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator test vehicle, which is part of a project designed to help get heavy payloads down safely on Mars, to a "spin table" test on Tuesday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The main goal was to look for any wobbles caused by an imperfect distribution of mass throughout the 15-foot-wide (4.6-meter-wide), 7,000-pound (3,175-kilogram) LDSD vehicle. If such wobbles are found, they can be corrected by inserting small masses at appropriate points around the craft's rim. [Photos: NASA's Inflatable Flying Saucer for Mars Landings]
"This is like spinning your automobile tire and putting weights on it to make sure that it spins perfectly," LDSD Chief Engineer Rob Manning said during the event, which was broadcast live on NASA TV.
The LDSD project is developing and testing saucerlike devices called Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators, or SIADs, as well as 100-foot-wide (31-meter-wide) supersonic parachutes — the biggest such chutes ever flown. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity mission used a parachute just half that wide.
The SIADs are designed to fit around the rim of an entry vehicle. They will inflate as the craft screams through the atmosphere of its target planet, increasing surface area and drag, and thus slowing down the vehicle.
NASA officials hope such technology can increase the size of the payloads the agency can put down on Mars. The "sky crane" system that landed Curiosity in August 2012 can handle about 1 metric ton — far short of the 10 to 20 metric tons (about 11 to 22 tons) that are likely to be required for human exploration of the Red Planet.
The inflatable decelerator and a superbig chute could probably boost that capability to 3 to 5 metric tons, said James Reuther, NASA deputy associate administrator for space technology.
The LDSD vehicle is in final preparations for shipment to Hawaii, where it will undergo the program's second-ever flight test from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai between June 2 and June 12, weather permitting.
The balloon-aided test will follow up on an LDSD trial conducted last June at the same Kauai facility. Although the decelerator worked as planned, the parachute was torn to shreds almost as soon as it was deployed. Since then, the chute's design has been modified and some elements have been strengthened.
"The question is, will it be strong enough?" Manning said.
Team members said a third flight test will probably launch from Kauai in the summer of 2016.