News Column

Mission to Mars stops first on Kauai

June 1, 2014

The Associated Press



The skies off the Hawaiian island of Kauai will be a stand-in for Mars as NASA prepares to launch a saucer-shaped vehicle in an experimental flight designed to land heavy loads on the Red Planet.

For decades, robotic landers and rovers have hitched a ride to Earth's planetary neighbor using the same parachute design. But NASA needs a bigger and stronger parachute if it wants to send astronauts there.

Weather permitting, the space agency will conduct a test flight Tuesday high in Earth's atmosphere that's supposed to simulate the thin Martian air.

Cameras rigged aboard the vehicle will capture the action as it accelerates to four times the speed of sound and falls back to Earth. Viewers can follow its descent live on the Internet.

Engineers cautioned that they may not succeed on the first try.

"As long as I get data, I'll be very happy," said project manager Mark Adler of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The search for a way to land massive payloads on Mars predates the existence of NASA. Back then, engineers toyed with sending a winged spacecraft that would land like an airplane, but the idea was not feasible, space historians say.

Landing has always been "one of the big technology challenges for a human Mars mission," American University space policy professor Howard McCurdy said in an e-mail.

When the twin Viking landers became the first spacecraft to set down on Mars in 1976, they relied on parachutes to slow down after punching through the Martian atmosphere. The basic design has been used since, including during the Curiosity rover's hair-raising landing in 2012.

With plans to land heavier spacecraft and eventually humans, NASA needed a heftier solution. So it designed a supersonic parachute that's 110 feet in diameter -- twice as big as the one that carried the 1-ton Curiosity.

It's so gigantic that it can't fit into the wind tunnels that NASA typically uses to test parachutes.

Since it's impractical to test unproven technology on Mars, NASA looked to Earth as a substitute.




NASA via AP


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Source: USA Today


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