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NASA Targets Late June for Flying Saucer Test Flight

/ Source: Associated Press
Image: Saucer rocket
An artist's conception shows the rocket on NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator sending the craft to near-space altitudes.NASA / JPL-Caltech

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LOS ANGELES — NASA hopes to try again to launch a "flying saucer" into Earth's atmosphere to test Mars mission technology after losing the chance because of bad weather, project managers said Thursday.

The space agency is working with the U.S. Navy on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to see if it can get the experimental flight off the ground in late June. During the two-week launch window that ends this weekend, the team came "tantalizingly close," but winds spoiled every opportunity, said project manager Mark Adler of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Winds must be calm for a helium balloon to carry the saucer-shaped Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator over the Pacific so it doesn't stray into no-fly zones.

NASA has invested $150 million in the project so far, and extending the launch window would come with some cost. If the flight doesn't happen this summer, it would be postponed until next year.

Image: Saucer rocket
An artist's conception shows the rocket on NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator sending the craft to near-space altitudes.NASA / JPL-Caltech

The mission is designed to test a new doughnut-shaped inflatable decelerator and giant parachute in Earth's stratosphere, where conditions are similar to the Red Planet's thin atmosphere.

For decades, NASA relied on the same parachute design to slow spacecraft streaking through the thin Martian atmosphere. The 1-ton Curiosity rover that landed in 2012 used the same basic parachute as the twin Viking landers in 1976.

With plans to land heavier payloads and eventually astronauts, NASA needed to develop new drag devices and a stronger parachute.

Measuring 110 feet in diameter, the new parachute is twice as large as the one that carried Curiosity. Since it can't fit in a wind tunnel where NASA does its traditional testing, engineers looked to the skies off Kauai.

— The Associated Press

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