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Flying Saucers on Mars? Not Yet, But NASA’s Working On It

A design from classic science fiction could be the stepping stone we need to put a person on another planet.

image via (cc) flickr user t_zero

There may not be little green men on Mars, but that that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a Martian flying saucer. At least, there will be once NASA finishes work on their “Low Density Supersonic Decelerator,” or LDSD, project.


In preparation for their eventual (but still unscheduled) manned mission to Mars, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been experimenting with a revolutionary method for depositing heavy payloads onto the planet’s surface: By transforming descending spacecraft into flying (well, “falling,” really) saucers. To do so, they’ve developed "Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators” (SIADs)–giant balloons that instantaneously envelop a craft, dramatically increasing its surface area by giving it an unmistakable “saucer” shape.

image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

The goal, explains NASA, is to create enough atmospheric drag on a craft entering the Martian atmosphere to reduce its speed while saving precious rocket fuel for the actual landing.

This week NASA conducted the final phase of lab tests on a 7,000-pound, 15-foot-wide SIAD, in order to determine whether the inflatable shell wobbles after encasing its host craft. Spinning at 30 rpm, the massive saucer was ultimately cleared for field testing, and will be transported to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missle Range in Hawaii. There, in June, it will be dropped from aproxomitely 55 kilometers above Earth’s surface, at which point our atmosphere most closely resembles that of Mars.

image via (cc) nasamarshall

Currently, according to Space.com, scientists are only able to deposit objects weighing about a ton onto the surface of Mars—far less than the estimated 10 to 20 tons worth of materials needed for a manned mission—by means of the “sky crane” technology used to land the Martian rovers Curiosity and Spirit. By turning their craft into a falling saucer, and then further slowing its descent with a supersonic parachute, NASA’s JPL team believe they’ll be able to increase that workable payload weight to nearly five and a half tons.

“You can think of this,” NASA deputy associate administrator for space technology James Reuther told Space.com, “as a stepping stone. Certainly, we have to take this step before we eventually get to a capability that can put 10 or more metric tons to the surface of Mars.”

Meanwhile, you can bet Mars’ supermarket tabloids are going to be full of blurry snapshots of “Flying Earth Saucers.”

...Not that any respectable Martian believes in that sort of stuff.

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