NASA reschedules Kauai launch of spacecraft

For the second time, NASA has rescheduled the test launch of its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project.

The test, which was set for Thursday, is now tentatively scheduled for Saturday due to adverse weather conditions, officials said.

LDSD is a rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle that was built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, with final assembly at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai.

The flight test is designed to investigate technologies for future Mars missions, including those involving human exploration. The major question is how to land safely on the red planet’s surface hauling larger payloads to accommodate extended stays on the Martian surface.

Testing over the Pacific will simulate the entry, descent and landing speed a spacecraft would be exposed to when flying through the Martian atmosphere.

Dr. Ian Clark, principle investigator of the LDSD project hopes it will be the future in space landing technology.

“A few years ago, we landed a one-ton nuclear powered rover on the surface of Mars, the Curiosity Rover,” said Clark. “If we want to land things even larger than that and at a higher elevation and more accurately, we need new technologies and some of those technologies are what were testing here.”

Clark said Hawaii’s facilities made it the destination of choice. “It’s a wonderful place, obviously, and very predictable and favorable winds as well,” said Clark.

During the June flight test, a balloon will carry the test vehicle from the Hawaii Navy facility to an altitude of about 120,000 feet. It will then be dropped and its booster rocket will quickly kick in and carry it to 180,000 feet, accelerating to Mach 4.

Once in the very rarified air high above the Pacific, the saucer will begin a series of automated tests.

When it falls, at speeds 3.5 times the speed of sound, a loud boom may be heard as well.

When asked if they had been informed about the testing, Kauai County officials said in a statement: “County officials today received information from PMRF confirming NASA’s upcoming flight test of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) experiment. It is our understanding that launch will take place at PMRF later this week, weather permitting.”

Current technology for decelerating from the high speed of atmospheric entry dates back to NASA’s Viking Program in 1976. The basic Viking parachute design has been used ever since.

Anyone with Internet access will be able to watch live as video from the June test is relayed from the vehicle to the ground.

The low-resolution images from the saucer are expected to show the vehicle dropping away from its high-altitude balloon mothership and then rocketing up to the very edge of the stratosphere.

NASA seeks to use atmospheric drag as the deceleration solution, saving rocket engines and fuel for final maneuvers and landing procedures.

The test vehicle will deploy an inflatable Kevlar tube around itself, called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD).

After the SIAD inflates, the test vehicle will deploy a mammoth parachute called the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute.

NASA says that “although there is no guarantee that this first test will be successful, regardless of the outcome, the LDSD team expects to learn a great deal from the test.”

NASA has two more saucer-shaped test vehicles in the pipeline, with plans to test them from Hawaii in summer of 2015.

When the test launch does happen, you’ll be able to watch the launch and video from LDSD at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv and http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2

More information about LDSD is at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/tdm/ldsd/

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