A saucer-shaped test vehicle holding equipment for landing large payloads on Mars in the Missile Assembly Building at the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kekaha on the island of Kaua‘i in Hawaii. (Nasa, AP)
Washington - Nasa sent a saucer-like vehicle high into the
sky on Saturday to test technology for a future Mars landing, but its parachute
tangled when deployed and the spacecraft splashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The test began when the US space agency attached its
"Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator" vehicle to a helium balloon the
size of a football field, the largest ever deployed, at a military base on the
Hawaiian island of Kauai. The balloon carried the saucer high into the sky
starting at 18:40 GMT.
Nasa television broadcast the event live.
the speed of sound
After some 2.5 hours of ascent, when the balloon reached a
height of 120 000 feet (36 600 metres), it detached the saucer, which fired its
rocket engine and rose to 180 000 feet (54 900 metres) travelling at 3.8 times
the speed of sound.
At that point the engine was cut off and Nasa began its
first test - deploying a doughnut-shaped inflatable device around the saucer
dubbed the "Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator."
This successfully slowed the saucer's descent to 2.5 times
the speed of sound.
As the saucer plunged towards Earth, Nasa began its second
test - deploying a giant parachute 36 metres in diameter.
The new technologies are being tested at extremely high
altitudes similar to those in Mars's upper atmosphere.
To land on Mars Nasa has been using a parachute system first
used in the 1970s, but with heavier spacecraft larger parachutes are needed.
The mammoth parachute should have helped the saucer complete
a gentle landing on the Pacific Ocean. Instead it failed to fully deploy and
the saucer plunged into the water.
The parachute "does not look like it deployed that
well," said Dan Coatta, one of the mission specialists, interviewed on Nasa
TV. "It deployed, but it did not fully inflate."
Despite the parachute failure, Nasa was satisfied with the
"What we saw is a very good test," said Coatta,
noting that everything went well up to the point of the parachute test.
"This is an opportunity to look at the data and learn
what happen and apply that for the next test," he said.
Nasa has two more flights planned to further test the new
Strong winds had forced Nasa to postpone the flight,
originally scheduled for a two-week launch window in early June.