Danielle Wiener-Bronner

NASA broadcast a spin test of its near-space-bound “rocket-powered, saucer-shaped” space capsule on Tuesday. That’s right, NASA is sending a flying saucer into space.

And it really looks like, well, a flying saucer. Although maybe a little less flashy than one imagined by Hollywood — but certainly much clearer than those spotted by UFO enthusiasts.


The 15-foot-wide, 7,000 pound space capsule will, if it functions correctly, one day bring heavier (read: human) payloads to Mars using a parachute. The saucer, operated by the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project, stayed on Earth during Tuesday's spin test which, surprise, spun the capsule around, to measure it's mass and make sure it doesn't wobble too much.

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Screengrab from NASA's spin test.

NASA used the rather lackluster spin-test as an opportunity to showcase the work the LDSD team has done to build and test the saucer, and discuss the different components of the new project.

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Graphic via NASA

NASA explains that the mission will, among other things, update the basic design for the saucer’s parachute—which has been essentially the same since 1976, when NASA’s Viking program sent landers to Mars.

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Image of the Viking mission, courtesy of NASA

In order to successfully bring larger payloads to Mars, the agency must build a larger parachute. NASA's Dr. James Reuther explained today that the new design must triple the parachute's area in order to ensure greater drag. It also has to be pretty sturdy—when NASA did a shakeout test of the flying saucer last summer, the parachute didn't make it. Here it is deploying:


And destructing:


NASA scientists, weren't especially concerned over that parachute's demise. Said LDSD project manager Mark Adler at the time, "the test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives."

To see how the parachute itself holds up in Mars-landing-like conditions, the agency ran a separate test. The video is worth watching in full, because it looks like it was edited for MTV and includes this line: "You want to go to Mars? You want to go big?"


Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Michael Meacham explains, "When we land spacecraft on Mars, we're going extremely fast. We have got to slow down, so we use a parachute. And we use a really big parachute. To make these large parachutes you have to test them before you go… In the past we've always used a wind tunnel. But the parachutes themselves are getting so large they don't fit in any of these wind tunnels anymore."


How do you solve that problem? Meacham explains:

"The crazy idea we came up with was to attach it to a rocket sled, and have that rocket sled pull it around a pulley with a huge one-kilometer-long rope." It does look pretty crazy:


… and also didn't end very well:


Two upcoming tests, one this summer and one next, will make sure the new parachute doesn't fall apart. The next one, slated for the first week of June, will be filmed by go-pros to ensure more awesome footage of its supersonic parachutes. That'll be cooler than a spin test.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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