NASA to Its Test Flying Saucer

Here's hoping that the fourth time will be the charm to test NASA's flying saucer. 

NASA scientists have been trying to launch the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (a.k.a. LDSD, a.k.a. NASA's very own flying saucer) all week with no luck. Every day the launch has been announced and then scrubbed due to inclement weather. The launch was originally supposed to take place Tuesday and then was rescheduled to Wednesday because of rough oceanic conditions, according to NASA. Then the  LDSD was slated to be launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility again on Thursday, but it seems the weather around the island of Kauai in Hawaii was again too dicey to risk launching the saucer after a line of rain showers moved into the launching area overnight. But now it's supposed to happen today. Possibly. Maybe. Assuming the weather and conditions cooperate. (And if we've learned anything from this week of scrubbed launches, it's to assume nothing.)

However, If the conditions are somehow finally favorable today, NASA scientists will send the closest thing we have to a flying saucer (outside of that one that they've been keeping in Area 51 ever since the little green men crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, all those years ago) soaring into the sky borne aloft on a giant weather balloon until it reaches an altitude of 120,000 feet. (The process of raising the LDSD on the back of the balloon will take at least two hours, so those who are planning to watch the entire show should schedule their lives accordingly.) Then the spacecraft will be put through its paces to prove that it can do things like fly, potentially cart around heavy payloads and actually land. 

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been charged with this project, and the brainiacs over in California have been working on this thing for years. By the time all the kinks are worked out, this type of vehicle will be able to cart heavy payloads, including astronauts, to Mars. But first NASA has to confirm that this doughnut-shaped craft can reliably fly. During the LDSD's first test, conducted last June in Kauai, the spacecraft's parachute tore. This year the LDSD has a stronger chute (a 100-foot-wide supersonic parachute, to be exact). The new and improved parachute is designed to work with the saucer-shaped "supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator," according to Space.com, to help control the craft's speed and allow it to land while carrying the sort of heavy equipment one might like to bring along to a planet like Mars, like a human-friendly living space or actual human astronauts, for example.

Mars is the thing. Aside from the sheer coolness factor of a flying saucer,  the LDSD is part of a broader mission to complete President Barack Obama's orders to get NASA astronauts within "the vicinity" of Mars by the 2030s. Some scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab even came up with their own unofficial plan for how NASA can actually put boots on Mars by the end of the 2030s, Space.com reports. The plan calls for use of Orion, successfully tested last December, the Space Launch System megarocket, due to be tested in 2018, and, of course, their own flying saucer.

The whole astronauts-on-Mars bit is still a long way off in the hazy future. During this testing cycle, once the balloon has lifted the 7,000-pound flying saucer to the proper height, the balloon will drop the LDSD. At that point, the spacecraft's on-board rocket is supposed to kick in, sending the craft 180,000 feet into the air. The inflatable decelerator will then duly inflate, expanding to about 20 feet wide while the test vehicle zips through the thin, rarefied Earth atmosphere at about three times the speed of sound. The inflatable is designed to slow the flying saucer down to a little more than two times the speed of sound and then the parachute will open and the whole test craft will drop into the Pacific Ocean. Sounds like a nifty show, yes? NASA will be live streaming most of the test flight and airing the video and commentary on NASA TV. 

Since the parachute was the biggest letdown during the first flight test, this time around is going to be all about that parachute, as far as the folks at NASA are concerned.  "This year's test is centered on how our newly designed supersonic parachute will perform. We think we have a great design ready for the challenge, but the proof is in the pudding and the pudding will be made live for everyone to see," Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, according to a NASA release.  

Hopefully we'll get to see that metaphorical pudding today with a second, awesome-sounding test flight.NASA is scheduled to start broadcasting at noon. However, don't despair if it gets scrubbed once again, because NASA's test launch window runs through June 12, according to the space agency. And if, somehow, some way the conditions continue to be a problem through June 12, there's an entire other launch window for the test from July 7 through July 17. 


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