Sunday, June 29, 2014

NASA keeps things hopping - in and out of the atmosphere

In the coolest recent test of gear that may get us to other planets (and by "us" I of course mean "me," or maybe that's wishful thinking), NASA flew a balloon carrying a rocket booster and an inflatable ring called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator.   The impetus here is that the thin atmosphere of Mars, which right now is the only planet where human life support is just extremely difficult rather than impossible, puts a limit on the cargo mass that can be delivered via parachute. The inflatable part of the LDSD "flying saucer," when accelerated to Mach 4 some 40 km above the Earth, performed perfectly under conditions simulating, as far as is possible on Earth, a high-speed delivery through the atmosphere of the Red Planet to the point where speed and atmospheric density are low enough and high enough, respectively, so conventional parachutes can take over. Given it takes about a million dollars to send a kilogram to Mars, we don't want to waste any cargo in landing accidents - let alone the astronauts who will one day make the trip. 
So while NASA is getting beat up (with some justification) for not having an executable vision for solar system exploration, there's some comfort in knowing that farsighted scientists and engineers are still thinking ahead.

LDSD in the lab (NASA photo)

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