Did those sci-fi writers have it right all along? Well, almost: it turns out, NASA will be testing its own flying saucer this summer. No, really — as part of a project that hopes to use the spacecraft to carry us earth-folk to the Red Planet one day, the saucer will be launched from a
U.S. Navy facility in Kauai this June. So people of Hawaii, prepare for an out-of-this-world experience.
Because the air on Mars has very thin density (roughly one percent as dense as the atmosphere on earth), landing on the planet is actually incredibly hard for vehicles traveling at supersonic speed. The flying disc — otherwise known as the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (which sounds equally cool, actually) — has been built using inflatable technology, in order to slow down when it enters the super-thin Martian atmosphere.
"It may seem obvious, but the difference between landing and crashing is stopping," Allen Chen at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena told New Scientist. "We really only have two options for stopping at Mars: rockets and aerodynamic drag."The LDSD will be tested four times in the near future, the first time being this summer in Hawaii. There, scientists will mimic Mars' thin atmosphere on earth by propelling it halfway to the edge of space, and then letting the disc fall into the ocean. If all goes well, the LDSD might start being used to help robotic craft land in previously impossible-to-reach areas of the planet, such as mountains or highlands. Eventually, the flying saucer may be used to carry humans to Mars.
"Personally, I think it's a game-changer.
You could take a mass to the surface equal to something like 1 to 10
Curiosities," said Robert Braun
at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Think about it like
a bridge for humans to Mars. This is the next step in a sequence of
technologies that would need to be developed."