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Science: 

NASA to stream flying saucer launch

Looks more like a cup cake with delicious sugary frosting to us. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Looks more like a cup cake with delicious sugary frosting to us. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In approximately one hour’s time, you can watch NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (or LDSD to its friends) head into near space. The hour long broadcast begins at 1600 UTC.

As appropriate for something that looks like the classic flying saucer from 1960s science fiction, this technology, NASA hopes, will be crucial to supplying missions to Mars. Because Mars’ atmosphere is far thinner than Earth, heavier payloads tend to present their own unique physics problems. On Earth, our atmosphere offers enough drag to slow down vehicles as they return from space, and this just doesn’t happen on Mars.

This spells crashes, and at the moment NASA can only land one metric ton per load on Mars, which is nowhere near enough for the quick establishment of a settlement. It’s the space equivalent of trying to move house in a Volkswagen Beetle: several stressful trips, and impractical for the big furniture.

How does the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator fix this problem? Well, it’s a rocket powered vehicle with an inflatable donut-shaped balloon on its outsides, which when combined will hopefully offer enough resistance to safely slow its descent and protect its cargo. NASA reckons that the balloon will slow the vehicle from Mach 3.5 to Mach 2, and they hope that an extra parachute will slow it down to subsonic speeds.

Will it work? Well, there’s lots of testing to be done before it takes its first mission to Mars, and today’s test is the first hurdle for it to gracefully hover over.

The live stream will come straight from a gallery above NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The video is expected to involve a spin-table test, which will ensure that the four small rocket rotors that stabilize the 7,000 pound vehicle as it descends work as intended. Which is pretty vital to the operation, as you might imagine.

You can watch the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator test stream live, on UStream.

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