The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project will test inflatable decelerators and advanced parachutes in a series of rocket sled, wind tunnel, and rocket-powered flight tests to slow spacecraft prior to landing. This technology will allow NASA to increase landed payload masses, improve landing accuracy and increase the altitude of safe landing-sites.
Watch a video of rocket sled testing:
Image credit: NASA
More about LDSD:
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project is an ambitious technology development and demonstration effort the likes of which has not been attempted since before the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970's. The project will test inflatable decelerators and advanced parachutes in a series of rocket sled, wind tunnel, and rocket-powered flight tests.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington. The mission is one of nine missions reporting to the Technology Demonstration Missions Program managed at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The project includes three decelerators. Two are inflatable -- very large (20 feet and 26 feet in diameter, respectively), durable, balloon-like pressure vessels that inflate around the perimeter of the entry vehicle to enhance drag in the Martian atmosphere at supersonic speeds (greater than Mach 3.5) and slow the vehicle to Mach 2. The third device is a parachute measuring 110 feet in diameter that will further slow the entry vehicle from Mach 2, or nearly 1,100 mph, to less than 175 mph. All three devices will be the largest of their kind ever flown at such high supersonic speeds.
These kinds of devices are often tested in a wind tunnel prior to flight; however, the parachute is so large that it will not fit inside any existing wind tunnel and the inflatable decelerators are too large for current supersonic wind tunnels. Thus, a series of rocket sled tests will begin early next year at the U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake to replicate the high aerodynamic forces each of these structures would experience during entry and descent at Mars. One set of tests will accelerate an aeroshell 15 feet in diameter to 300 mph in just a few seconds using a rocket sled.
The inflatable decelerator will then be deployed to simulate the stresses it would see during flight. Another set of tests will attach a parachute to the rocket sled to verify that the parachute will be able to withstand the forces expected during supersonic flight. The technology development effort will culminate in a series of flight tests, in which an Apollo-sized capsule is lifted to an altitude of 120,000 feet -- to simulate the thin Martian atmosphere -- using a balloon and accelerated to Mach 4 using a rocket. The decelerator systems are then tested almost exactly as they would be used at Mars, enabling future missions to confidently use these technologies to land there.
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