Nasa to test 'flying saucer' Mars lander in Hawaii as preparation for manned missions

The new Low Density Supersonic Decelerator will be dropped from 55km to test a new method designed to safely land heavier payloads

Nasa has announced that it will begin tests of a new ‘flying saucer’ that could one day help land people on Mars.

Unfortunately for conspiracy buffs, this isn’t the space agency finally confessing to developing those classic-look UFOs that plagued rural types in 1950s America, but the public’s first look at a new type of planetary lander known as the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD).

This June, residents of the tiny Hawaiian island of Kauai will be treated to the unusual sight of this vehicle plummeting to the surface of the ocean after being hauled up to a height of 55 kilometres through a combination of rockets and high-altitude balloons.

The LDSD will fall from this height with its descent slowed from a speed of Mach 3.5 to lower than Mach 2 through a combination of inflatable discs and single giant parachute which will drastically increase the craft’s atmospheric drag.

It’s hoped that this technology will allow Nasa to land even larger payloads on the surface of Mars – a planet whose thin atmosphere (its only 1 per cent as dense as Earth’s) makes touching down without a bang extremely difficult.

The design of the LDSD was inspired by the Hawaiian puffer fish which increase size without adding mass. Image: Getty

"It may seem obvious, but the difference between landing and crashing is stopping," Allen Chen from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told New Scientist. “We really only have two options for stopping at Mars: rockets and aerodynamic drag."

Nasa’s current landing techniques have been in use since the 1976 Viking mission which deployed parachutes and rockets to safely drop a pair of landers on Mars. However, as these robots get heavier and more complex scientists are having difficulty ensuring their safe descent.

The car-sized Curiosity rover weighed just under a tonne but Nasa calculates that future manned missions could require anything between 40 to 100 times heavier loads. Rockets powerful enough to slow down this sort of load would end up destabilising the craft. This is bad enough when you’re risking a $2 billion lander like Curiosity, but out of the question if humans are the payload.

LDSD is attempting to solve this quandary through the use of balloon-like cushions that would rapidly inflate around the payload, increasing its surface area and consequently its atmospheric drag. A 33.5-metre parachute could then be safely deployed once the craft has been slowed.

Nasa thinks this design could support payloads between 1 and 10 times heavier than Curisioty and will be testing the system over the next couple of years.  

Sport
Romelu Lukaku
sportChelsea striker sends second teasing tweet of the day
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
people
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Tax Solicitor

£40000 - £70000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Tax Solicitor An excel...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This is an exce...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns