June 30, 2014 – Over the weekend NASA test flew its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) near the Hawaiian Islands. It is NASA’s solution for landing heavier payloads on the surface of Mars and the test produced “nominal” results. Nominal is NASA jargon for “as expected.” The LDSD plucked from the Pacific appears in the image below.
Referred to as NASA’s flying saucer, the LDSD is an inflatable balloon-like heat shield ring that deploys as a spacecraft descends during entry into a thin atmosphere like that on Mars. Increased drag safely decelerates the payload from spaceflight speeds to a more modest Mach 2.5 (around 3, 000 kilometers or 1, 900 miles per hour). LDSD is designed more for decelerating payloads with no humans on board. It could be used to deploy a surface habitat with Martian human crews arriving later using a different mode of controlled descent.
That’s where Project Morpheus fits in. Morpheus is a vertical takeoff and landing technology designed to provide advanced controlled flight operations for crewed spacecraft sent to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars. The technology integrates advanced autonomous guidance systems with reusable rocket engines. It has recently successfully been tested a number of times and can alter its trajectory based on visualizing ground-based obstacles. You can see the Morpheus prototype in descent mode in the photograph appearing below.
In combination with the LDSD, Morpheus brings humanity much closer to a solution for safe flight to a place like Mars. Of course the interplanetary transit challenges remain. But at least the descent and landing technologies appear to becoming viable.
You might also like: