Unfavorable Winds Delay Test Flight of NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrator


After two weeks of uncooperative wind conditions at the U. S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, NASA is suspending efforts to test launch a disk shaped craft for the demonstration of technologies intended to  greatly increase the payload mass that can be landed on the Martian surface.

The announcement Thursday from Mark Adler, NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator mission project manager, and Ian Clark, the principal investigator, followed a half-dozen attempts since June 3 to launch the rocket powered Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator from a high altitude balloon.

The project team is negotiating with the Navy for possible additional launch opportunities on the busy test range headquartered on the island of Kauai late this month, said Adler.

The test flight represents a major milestone for the $200 million, five-year old LDSD initiative managed by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Current technologies support Martian landings with masses of about one ton. A human mission of the type NASA envisions for the 2030s would require a 40 ton capability.

The test begins with a balloon launch from Kauai that will carry the 6,900 pound saucer shaped SIAD payload to an altitude of 120,000 feet. Once released, SIAD is to be powered to 180,000 feet and a Mach 4 velocity with a solid rocket motor. At those altitudes the Earth’s atmosphere is thin and suitably Martian like.

The 15½ foot wide saucer is equipped to inflate to 20 feet and begin to slow with atmospheric drag. After slowing to Mach 2.5 –- about three minutes after the balloon release -- a 100 foot wide supersonic parachute deploys to lower the saucer to the ocean’s surface.

Winds for the test must be favorable at altitudes from 15,000 to 60,000 feet to sweep the towering balloon and test vehicle away from populated areas.

After choosing between Kauai and Australia’s Woomara Test Range, the LDSD team studied wind data in the region from 2012-13 and 2008-09 that suggested early June was favorable for the test flight, said Adler

But the weather pattern in the Northern Hemisphere changed this year, leading to a longer winter and unfavorable winds in the region.

“The team is very focused,” said Clark. “We are still very enthusiastic about the opportunities that we think are ahead of us to do this test.”

SAID and the 856 foot tall balloon and launch tower will remain at the Navy missile range as the negotiations over future use of the test range unfold.

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