LIHUE — A NASA flying saucer is set to take to the skies offshore of the Pacific Missile Range Facility as early as Wednesday, a test flight designed to land heavier payloads on Mars during future human and robotic missions.
The launch, which will be visible from most vantage points on the Westside, will lift a saucer-shaped disk on the back of a 34-million cubic foot helium balloon — large enough to fill Rose Bowl Stadium — to an altitude of 120,000 feet. Then the balloon will drop the disk.
After detachment, a rocket engine will kick in, sending the disk above the ocean at four times the speed of sound. At top speed, a decelerator attached to the vehicle will inflate to slow the disk down before a parachute is deployed.
If all goes as planned, the saucer will land safely in the ocean off the coast of PMRF, where boats will be waiting to collect it, along with the parachute and balloon.
“There’s really no other place in the world we can find where we would have the right conditions to launch a balloon like this,” said Mark Adler, project manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Tuesday was billed as the first potential date for the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator experiment. The launch day, however, was posponed due to high seas, which could make equipment recovery difficult.
The team has until June 12 to conduct the test. In the event that weather conditions continue to delay the launch — wind speed and direction are critical to flying the balloon to the desired altitude — the team has a second opportunity from July 7-17.
As NASA plans increasingly ambitious missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human science expeditions to come, 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.
“Technology drives exploration,” said Bruce Hay, PMRF’s commanding officer. “Right now we are at the technological limits of what we can land on Mars in terms of size and weight. So this new technology is required to land 5 metric tons for human missions.”
NASA projects it could put humans on Mars as early as the 2030s.
The balloon that will be used in the upcoming launch is a stronger, more robust version of the one launched by NASA at PMRF last June. Those improvements were made based on researchers’ analysis of high-resolution, high-definition camera footage from the June 2014 test.
“We saw things that we had never seen or imagined before,” Ian Clark, NASA’s JPL principal investigator, said about last year’s launch. “We saw things like the suspension lines exploding like lightning, moving chaotically all over the place.”
Clark said the team made a number of improvements to the technology based on those images that will be tested in the upcoming launch.
A camera will also record footage of this year’s launch so researchers can study how the equipment responds to the atmospheric conditions and, if necessary, make improvements.