NASA preps real flying saucer for take-off

To test new tech for future Mars missions, NASA builds an experimental rocket-powered flight vehicle that looks like it could be a UFO.

NASA's LDSD project
This is an identified flying object.Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech

The classic UFO is a flying saucer, an alien spacecraft that looks impossible, like it must be the product of advanced technology from a distant civilization. The whole UFO phenomenon is about to get much more down-to-Earth with NASA's new test vehicle, a crazy-looking experiment scheduled for a test flight in early June.

NASA's creation sports an unwieldy name. The Supersonic Flight Dynamics Test Vehicle is part of the agency's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project. It comes equipped with a Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute and a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, which is a large Kevlar tube. You may notice a supersonic theme here. The idea is to find new ways to safely deliver payloads onto the surfaces of planets like Mars.

The test vehicle is designed to pull some pretty impressive stunts. The test launch will start with a balloon ride up to 120,000 feet. From there, it will be deployed to set off its booster rocket and shoot upward to 180,000 feet while approaching Mach 4. Suddenly, that Six Flags roller-coaster ride you screamed your head off about looks pretty tame.

The craft isn't made to spin or zoom around like popular visions of flying saucers, though the shape will surely have people thinking of those kinds of spacecraft.

The rocket part of the decelerator gets it high enough to test out the inflatable tube and huge parachute. The tube produces drag to slow the craft as it lowers through the atmosphere. The parachute is there to help ease it back to the ground. If the design works, it could eventually be used to deliver items like a new larger and heavier Mars rover to the planet's surface.

Sending the test craft up into the stratosphere is designed to mimic the atmosphere on Mars. "This first test is a true experimental flight test," says Ian Clark, the LDSD principal investigator. "Our goal is to get this first-of-its-kind test vehicle to operate correctly at very high speeds and very high altitudes."

NASA researchers will be watching to see how the craft performs at high speeds in a thin atmosphere. This sort of technology could some day be used to help deliver supplies to a human settlement on Mars.

UFO fans should cheer on this development. It may even spawn some fresh conspiracy theories involving NASA's use of top-secret alien technology. There aren't any major secrets here, though. It's all about using big rockets and big parachutes to explore ways to deliver heavy supplies to the surface of the Red Planet. Future human residents of Mars will be grateful for these early experiments when they're enjoying their care packages from Earth.

NASA LDSD parachute device
An engineer works on the parachute deployment device.Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech