Cheers turned to groans when for the second time the parachute on NASA's LDSD flying saucer shredded at supersonic speeds. The Low Density Supersonic Decelerator or LDSD uses atmospheric drag to slow itself down before impact. It's paving the way to bring humans to Mars in the 2030s.
In the NASA test a balloon carrying the LDSD lifted off from the Pacific Missile Range on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. After about 3 hours it was at 120,000 feet. From there a rocket on the LDSD ignited and carried the craft to 180,000 feet with a top speed of Mach 4 or about 3,000 miles per hour. After the engine stopped the SIADs or Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators deployed. They're like big balloons that slow the craft from Mach 3.5 to Mach 2. From there a 100-foot parachute deployed designed to slow the craft from Mach 2 to below Mach 1, except that didn't happen in this test.
The parachute on the LDSD faced a similar fate last year's test. While the most recent chute has a new design, it still wasn't able to stand up to supersonic speeds.
There are high speed cameras on the LDSD, like this one from last year, that NASA will review to see what happened.
Once the LDSD works as designed it will allow heavier payloads to be delivered to the surface of Mars. When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012 it used the same parachute design that the Viking program used in 1976 when it put two landers on Mars. The LDSD will double the payload capability from 3,300 to 6,600 pounds or 3000 kilograms.
NASA plans to study the data from this test in order to perfect the parachute for another try next year.