NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator test flight on Saturday was marred by a parachute failure that followed a successful launch and acceleration of the high altitude test vehicle from the U. S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range.
Recovery vessels were headed for the LDSD splashdown site northwest of Kauai, hopeful of recovering a “black box” with valuable flight data. The data recorder was designed to separate from the flight vehicle, float in the oceans waters. It was equipped with a GPS locator as well.
However, the recovery effort was expected to take one to two days, according to Dan Coatta, a NASA LDSD engineer who provided commentary during a space agency broadcast of the test flight.
NASA's Low Density Supersonic Decelerator test vehicle descends
beneath partially opened supersonic parachute. NASA TV
The three hour exercise got underway at 2:41 p.m., EDT, as the 856 foot tall helium balloon serving as the “first stage” for the flight ascended from the missile test range with the 6,900 pound saucer- shaped LDSD flight test vehicle in tow. The ascent to 120,000 feet was slow but appeared to go smoothly – though NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flight control team tracked falling temperatures on the aft nozzle of the solid rocket motor bolted to the 15 ½ foot wide LDSD.
NASA's saucer-shaped low density supersonic decelerator rises to 120,000 feet
beneath balloon during Saturday's test flight. NASA TV.
After reaching 120,000 feet, the LDSD was released from the balloon at 5:05 p.m. The ignition of four spin motors quickly stabilized the saucer. The one minute ignition of the solid rocket motor accelerated the test vehicle to Mach 4, as the LDSD raced toward the test flight’s 180,000 foot summit.
That was to be followed by the rapid inflation of the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator that encircled the test vehicle like a belt. With the inflation of the Kevlar laced SIAD, the saucer was to expand from 15 ½ to 20 feet in width. The expansion was to increase the aerodynamic drag enough to slow the saucer to Mach 2.5, at which point a 100 foot wide supersonic parachute was to deploy and lower the test hardware to the Pacific Ocean.
Cameras aboard the LDSD showed the test vehicle intact as it descended beneath the chute, though all of the electronics were to turn off at 15,000 feet so the black box could store the flight data.
Currently, two more LDSD flight tests are planned in mid-2015. Engineers believe the SIAD and parachute technologies they are pursuing will replace those in use by NASA for risky Mars surface operations since the successful descent of the Viking probes in the mid-1970s.
Those capabilities appear to have peaked with the successful 2012 landing of the Curiosity rover, a one ton spacecraft.
The human exploration activities that NASA currently envisions for Mars in the 2030s would require landed payloads of 40,000 pounds for cargo missions and in support of astronaut landings.
Saturday’s test met key objectives that should quality it as a success, according to Coatta, who outlined the criteria before the towering balloon and test vehicle left the ground.
“Our test goals were to inflate the balloon, launch, get up to altitude successfully, drop off the balloon, have our rocket motor fire and get up to speed,” he said. “Everything beyond that point was the cherry on top.”
The SIAD appeared to inflate successfully, NASA video indicated.
It appeared the parachute opened but inflated only partially. Its large size precluded extensive ground testing.
“This is sort of new territory we were in,” said Coatta. “We have not tested this parachute in this way before. We went into this knowing it was a test. We had to do the test to see what happens.”
The data recorder holds a “treasure trove” of pressure and temperature data as well as readings from force sensors and high definition video from the flight, he said.
Efforts to carry out the test in early to mid June were called off because of unseasonably high altitude winds that threatened to send the flight hardware flying over populated areas.
On Wednesday, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate announced it would make further flight attempts during a window that opened Saturday and closed Thursday.