WASHINGTON — NASA will have to wait until next summer to see if the third time’s the charm for an experimental Mars landing system whose supersonic parachute tore away soon after it deployed from a saucer-shaped test vehicle traveling nearly two and a half times the speed of sound.
The leaders of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project said the supersonic parachute, one of the technologies tested on the flight, opened fully, or nearly so, during the June 8 flight test before ripping apart a split second later.
That was an improvement over the parachute failure during the first LDSD flight last year, when the parachute ripped apart very early in the inflation process.
In both tests, the vehicle’s other core technology — the airbag-like Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) — deployed successfully and slowed the decent from the stratosphere by increasing drag. But LDSD’s supersonic parachute has now failed twice in back-to-back attempts.
NASA officials, however, were quick to characterize the test as a success since the data they collected will help them refine the landing system’s design.
“The physics involved with LDSD is so cutting-edge we learn something profound every time we test,” said Ian Clark, principal investigator for LDSD at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Going into this year’s flight, I wanted to see that the parachute opened further than it did last year before it began to rupture. The limited data set we have at present indicates we may not only have gone well down the road to full inflation, but we may have achieved it.
NASA needs to perfect its supersonic parachute technology if it is to land heavy payloads or manned missions on the surface of Mars. Officials said in a June 9 press conference that they want at least two successful parachute tests before using the technology on an actual Mars mission.
At 5:39 mark, elation turns to disappointment as the supersonic chute inflates but then immediately rips apart.
NASA plans to return to Hawaii’s Pacific Missile Range Facility next summer for third LDSD test. Assuming next year’s test is a success, NASA will need to conduct at least one more LDSD flight test to meet its baseline criteria for proving the system is ready to include in a Mars mission.
But as of now, LDSD’s $320 million budget doesn’t cover a fourth flight. If NASA wants to continue the project past next summer, it will need to find more money.
Surprisingly little is known about how parachutes will behave at supersonic speeds. LDSD Project Manager Mark Adler said that NASA cannot accurately simulate the physics of supersonic parachutes and so has to rely on real-world testing.
Clark said that the team is trying to push the limits of what is technologically possible. But, he said, during the June 8 test, “the physics of supersonic parachutes pushed back on us.”
Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said parachutes are just part of the many other technologies that need to be developed in order to conduct a safe and affordable human-class mission to Mars.
Jurczyk said NASA should be ready for such a mission in the 2030s.