Ready for liftoff — almost

LIHUE — Delayed, but not shelved.

A NASA flying saucer is set to take to the skies offshore of Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility but recent rain pushed the possible launch to Thursday.

Today was billed as the first of six potential dates for the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator experiment, which is designed to test technologies that will one day allow heavier payloads to land on Mars. Eventually, the goal of the experiment is to lead human and robotic missions on the planet, far, far away.

Heavy rain, however, has delayed the launch, although the scientists are ready to try later this week. 

“For us, it’s the challenges of Mars,” Michael Gazarik, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, told a group of reporters during a briefing Monday at the base. “How do we get there? How do we land there? How do we live there? How do we leave?”

Once the project gets off ground, here’s how it will work:

First, a 34-million cubic foot helium balloon — large enough to fill Rose Bowl Stadium — will lift off from PMRF, carrying the saucer-shaped disk, named keiki o ka honua, or “boy from Earth.” Once it reaches an altitude of 120,000 feet, the balloon will drop the disk.

Less than two seconds after detachment, a Star 48B long-nozzled, solid-fueled rocket engine will kick in with 17,500 pounds of force, sending the 15-foot wide disk from 23 to 34 miles above the ocean and reaching four times the speed of sound, according to NASA. Once at top speed, a doughnut-shaped decelerator attached to the vehicle will inflate to slow the disk down to Mach 2.5 before a parachute — the largest supersonic parachute ever flown — is deployed.

About 45 minutes later, if all goes as planned, the saucer will land safely in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kauai, where boats will be waiting to pick it up, along with the parachute and balloon.

As NASA plans increasingly ambitious missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human science expeditions to come, it says accommodating extended stays for explorers on the surface of the red planet will require larger and heavier spacecrafts. And getting those spacecraft there will require stronger parachutes.

“We want to test them here where it’s cheaper before we send them to Mars,” Mark Adler, LDSD project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said of the technologies.

The objective of the LDSD project is to see if the cutting-edge, rocket-powered test vehicle operates as it was designed — in near-space at high Mach numbers. The high altitude will simulate Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Adler said that while this is an experiment and something could go wrong, it would be a “good day” if the rocket fires up and the NASA team is able to collect data from it. 

Capt. Bruce Hay, commander of PMRF, described the experiment as “awesome” and “complex.”

“I’m personally very excited to see this,” he said. “Super happy to be sharing our range with our friends from NASA.” 

Hay said NASA chose to launch from PMRF because of the 2.1 million square miles of range that make up Hawaii’s Temporary Operating Area. And Gazarik said NASA plans to return.

“This is the first step,” he said. “We’ll be back next year.”

Monday’s media briefing fielded questions — some in person, some over the phone — from several media outlets, including NBC News and USA Today. 

NASA has five additional potential dates for launch of the high altitude balloon carrying the LDSD, including June 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. The launch window for each date extends from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Cameras on board the LDSD will allow people to watch the action, including the ascent, by visiting www.nasa.gov/nasatv. 

• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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