Yesterday, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory put the final touches on a design that's on its way to Hawaii for a test launch and landing before, eventually, hopefully, being deployed on Mars. And the design bears a more than passing resemblance to the iconic flying saucer.

This comes from the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project, which built this 7,000 pound, rocket-powered vehicle as part of the push for greater exploration of Mars. It's equipped with a supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R) — an inflatable donut-shaped parachute which will allow larger payloads to land on Mars. The vehicle is also designed to land on higher-altitude locations than before.

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In June, the whole thing will be tested at the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. Explains NASA:

In mid-April, the vehicle will be flown to Kauai. During the June experimental flight test, a balloon will carry the test vehicle from the naval facility to an altitude of about 120,000 feet (36 kilometers). There, over the Pacific, it will be dropped and its booster rocket will kick in and carry it to 180,000 feet (55 kilometers), accelerating to Mach 4. Once in the very rarified air high above the Pacific, the saucer will begin a series of automated tests of two breakthrough technologies.

The supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R) — essentially an inflatable doughnut that increases the vehicle's size and, as a result, its drag — will be deployed at about Mach 3.8. It will quickly slow the vehicle to Mach 2.5 where the parachute — the largest supersonic parachute ever flown — will deploy. About 45 minutes later, the saucer is expected to make a controlled landing onto the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.

The upper layers of Earth's stratosphere are the most similar environment available to match the properties of the thin atmosphere of Mars. The LDSD mission developed this test method to ensure the best prospects for effective testing of the new and improved landing technologies here on Earth.

Yesterday's spin test was one of the final checks before that flight. The vehicle was spun at 30 rpm to check its balance. You can watch an archived stream of the test below:


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Contact the author at katharine@io9.com.