Flying Saucers Are Totally Real

by Sarah Hedgecock

UFOs are real, and the government has them. Well, kind of. On Saturday, NASA tested a flying saucer-like craft designed to help equipment – and possibly even people – land safely on the surface of Mars. No crazy sci-fi plotline here: This time, a mission to Mars might be for real.

The device is formally called the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD for short. In the past, engineers have used parachutes to slow an object's descent and keep it from crashing into the ground. The LDSD won't necessarily replace parachutes to prevent horrible Martian accidents, but it will supplement the technology NASA already has in order to make the process safer. Don't get too excited yet: it'll be a while before the LDSD will be helping astronauts land on other planets. For now, the plan is to use it to keep equipment like new robotic probes just a little safer.

Saturday's $150 million test flight was the first of three that NASA scientists will conduct on LDSD within Earth's atmosphere. In order to best simulate Martian atmospheric conditions, the experiments are being conducted high up in our own planet's sky, where the air is thin enough to mimic that of Mars. The experiment had been put off several times already because of windy conditions earlier this month, but Saturday's launch, which was live-streamed by NASA, went off without a hitch. And although there was a snag when the device's parachute didn't quite deploy as it was supposed to, the researchers in charge are calling it a success.

The device was launched 120,000 feet into the air from the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility near Kauai, Hawaii. No, it wasn't actually launched by a missile; it was attached to a balloon that gently floated it up to that altitude. But once the LDSD hit the 120,000-foot mark and the balloon broke away, the experiment got much more exciting. The craft used its own rocket boosters to launch itself another 30 miles into the atmosphere at four times the speed of sound. Once it was time to fall back down, the vehicle deployed the two technologies under examination as a tube surrounding the entire craft puffed up to slow its descent and what NASA itself describes as "an enormous parachute" partially unfurled.

Unfortunately, the parachute's deployment stayed only partial as the LDSD crashed into the ocean about half an hour after its balloon launcher dropped away. Still, since the experiment was intended to examine only the LDSD's ability to fly (the landing technologies were only included "as a bonus"), scientists are calling it a success. Which we hope is code for "it's time to book your tickets to Mars."

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech