NASA has shared new details and imagery from the first flight of its saucer-shaped test vehicle, which the space agency hopes will improve upon planetary landers like the one that successfully put the Curiosity rover on Mars.
The rocket-powered craft, which looks a bit like a flying saucer, was put into near-space in June from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, NASA said.
The flight was the first of three tests planned for the project. The first test was preliminary, according to NASA — the goal being to see if the balloon-launched design could reach the altitude and airspeed required to run further tests that would determine if the design will work on future Mars missions.
Two technologies specifically were tested during the experimental flight. The first, a large, doughnut-shaped air brake called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), helped slow the vehicle from 3.8 to 2 times the speed of sound. The second, the Supersonic Disksail Parachute, is the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, more than double the size of the one used to land Curiosity. Both tests were considered successful, NASA said.
"A good test is one where there are no surprises but a great test is one where you are able to learn new things, and that is certainly what we have in this case," Ian Clark, principal investigator for LDSD at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Thursday.
"Our test vehicle performed as advertised. The SIAD and ballute, which extracted the parachute, also performed beyond expectations. We also got significant insight into the fundamental physics of parachute inflation. We are literally re-writing the books on high-speed parachute operations, and we are doing it a year ahead of schedule," Clark said.
As the Associated Press reports, this insistence on a successful test flight came despite a parachute virtually disintegrating the moment it deployed.
Clark said the tearing and tangling of the parachute that then opened shows that we have "more to learn," AP reports.
NASA shared the following footage from the flight:
This story has been updated.