Nasa has tested its flying saucer-like planetary landing concept in a stratospheric flight

Parachute problems during Nasa's flying saucer test

Test of Nasa's Low Density Supersonic Decelerator in a stratospheric descent has shown shortcomings in parachute design of the concept foreseen to land humans on Mars.

The flying saucer-like vehicle, a test bed that should eventually enable humans to land on Mars or other bodies with extremely thin atmosphere, was carried by a balloon to a 36,576m altitude above the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Raising its altitude further using a rocket engine, the vehicle then started its descent, using a parachute-braking concept.

However, as the vehicle emerged above the landing site, it was obvious that its massive descent parachute only partially unfurled.

Still, Nasa officials were satisfied with the results. "What we just saw was a really good test," said Nasa engineer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet in 1976, Nasa has relied on the same parachute design to slow landers and rovers after piercing through the thin Martian atmosphere.

The $150 million (£88 million) experimental flight tested a novel vehicle and a giant parachute designed to deliver heavier spacecraft and eventually astronauts.

Viewers around the world with an Internet connection followed portions of the mission in real time thanks to cameras on board the vehicle that beamed back low-resolution footage.

After taking off from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the balloon boosted the disc-shaped vehicle over the Pacific.

Its rocket motor then ignited, carrying the vehicle to 34 miles high at supersonic speeds.

The environment that high up is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere. As the vehicle prepared to drop back the Earth, a tube around it expanded like a Hawaiian puffer fish, creating atmospheric drag to dramatically slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.

Then the parachute unfurled and guided the vehicle to an ocean splashdown about three hours later. At 110 feet in diameter, the parachute is twice as big as the one that carried the 1-ton Curiosity rover through the Martian atmosphere in 2011.

The test was postponed six times because of high winds. Winds need to be calm so that the balloon does not stray into no-fly zones.

Engineers planned to analyse the data and conduct several more flights next year before deciding whether to fly the vehicle and parachute on a future Mars mission.

"We want to test them here where it's cheaper before we send it to Mars to make sure that it's going to work there," project manager Mark Adler of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said during a pre-launch news conference in Kauai in early June.

The technology envelope needs to be pushed or else humanity will not be able to fly beyond the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit, said Michael Gazarik, head of space technology at NASA headquarters.

Technology development "is the surest path to Mars," he said.

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