The Low Density Supersonic Decelerator was lifted by balloon 120,000 feet (36,575 meters) into the air from the Hawaiian island of
But cheers rapidly died Saturday as a gigantic chute designed to slow its fall to splashdown in the ocean emerged tangled.
Since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet in 1976,
Despite small problems like the giant parachute not deploying fully,
"What we just saw was a really good test," said
Viewers around the world with an Internet connection followed portions of the mission in real time thanks to cameras on board the vehicle that beamed back low-resolution footage.
After taking off at
The environment that high up is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere. As the vehicle prepared to drop back the Earth, a tube around it expanded like a Hawaiian puffer fish, creating atmospheric drag to dramatically slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.
Then the parachute unfurled and guided the vehicle to an ocean splashdown about three hours later. At 110 feet (33 meters) in diameter, the parachute is twice as big as the one that carried the 1-ton Curiosity rover through the Martian atmosphere in 2011.
The test was postponed six times because of high winds. Winds need to be calm so that the balloon doesn't stray into no-fly zones.
Engineers planned to analyze the data and conduct several more flights next year before deciding whether to fly the vehicle and parachute on a future Mars mission.
"We want to test them here where it's cheaper before we send it to Mars to make sure that it's going to work there," project manager
The technology envelope needs to be pushed or else humanity won't be able to fly beyond the
Technology development "is the surest path to Mars," Gazarik said at the briefing.
Associated Press Science Writer
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