NASA has tested new technology designed to bring spacecraft — and one day even astronauts — safely down to Mars, with the agency declaring its experiment a qualified success even though a giant parachute got tangled on the way down.
Saturday’s $150 million experiment is the first of three involving the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator vehicle. Tests are being conducted at high altitude on Earth to mimic descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere.
A balloon hauled the saucer-shaped craft 120,000 feet into the sky from a Navy missile range on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Then, the craft’s own rocket boosted it to more than 30 miles high at supersonic speeds.
As the craft prepared to fall back to Earth, a doughnut-shaped tube around it expanded, creating atmospheric drag to slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.
Then the parachute partly unfurled and made a hard landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Engineers are looking at the parachute problem as a way to learn more and apply that knowledge during future tests, said NASA engineer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“In a way, that’s a more valuable experience for us than if everything had gone exactly according to plan,” he said.
A ship was sent to recover a “black box” designed to separate from the vehicle. Outfitted with a GPS beacon, the box contains crucial flight data scientists are eager to analyze.
NASA investigators expect to know more once they analyze data from the box, which they expected to retrieve Sunday, along with the vehicle and parachute. They also expected to recover high-resolution video.