Launch a no go

LIHUE — Six potential launch dates. Six days of uncooperative wind conditions. No test flight.

“All of our vehicles, our systems, our teams were ready,” Mark Adler, project manager of NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project, said during a media teleconference Thursday from Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility. 

“The only thing is that none of our launch days had or will have acceptable weather conditions.”

Despite the missed opportunity, NASA is regrouping and hopes to have LDSD — a saucer-shaped experimental flight vehicle designed to test new Mars landing technologies — off the ground by month’s end.

“We’re ready to go. We’re not giving up,” Adler said. 

The LDSD test flight will involve a 34-million cubic foot helium balloon — large enough to fill Rose Bowl Stadium — lifting 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 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. 

If all goes as planned, the saucer will land safely in the Pacific Ocean, where boats will be waiting to pick it up, along with the parachute and balloon.

The recent delays resulted from unseasonable winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet. PMRF Commander Capt. Bruce Hay said the trade winds and associated upper level winds normally come from the east-northeast.  

“This wind direction is required to send the balloon and attached test vehicle out over water and away from populated areas,” he said. “Unfortunately, modeling done on real time wind information for the most recent launch dates showed a path that would take the balloon over land which is not permissible.”

NASA’s two-week launch window, as well as its reserved range time at PMRF, ends Saturday, when poor conditions are forecasted to continue. The team is working with the Navy and looking at weather conditions predicted for later in the month, when another launch window could be possible, the space agency said.

Working in conjunction with its other range customers, PMRF has been able to provide additional potential launch dates from June 28 to July 3, according to Hay. 

“Weather forecasting is only accurate to about three days so the program will re-deploy here regardless and assess the weather,” he said. “If the weather and associated winds have returned to seasonal averages, it is very likely that the launch will occur during these new dates.”

LDSD project scientist Ian Clark said the experience is a reminder that the journey to Mars is longer than the eight months it takes to travel from Earth to the red planet in a spacecraft. Rather, he said, it’s the years preceding it — the development, testing, retesting, fabrication and launch operations.

“A little delay like this associated with the weather is hardly even a hiccup along that timeline, and that timeline is even longer when you start thinking about humans on Mars,” he said. 

If NASA is unable to launch the LDSD this summer, it would have to wait until next year, which Adler said could come at an increased cost. NASA has invested $200 million on the project, which began in 2010 and will continue through 2015, he said. 

The mission 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.

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

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