A helium balloon carrying an experimental saucer-shaped Nasa spacecraft is set for take-off on Tuesday (2 June) to test new landing systems for future missions to Mars.
The second test of Nasa's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is designed to investigate and test breakthrough technologies for landing future robotic and human Mars missions and safely returning large payloads to Earth.
"As we started thinking about the next generation of more capable, more exciting, more bold missions to Mars, we started realizing that we didn't have the technologies in place to land them and we had to start today, start developing those technologies," said Jet Propulsion Laboratory LDSD Principal Investigator, Ian Clark.
"Things like inflatable drag devices, that we could inflate at the speed of sound, and a new supersonic parachute 100 feet in diameter," Clark said.
The project, led by Nasa JPL and sponsored by Nasa's Space Technology Mission Directorate, consists of six flight demonstrations, to be conducted over the next 18 months.
"Right now, we're kind of at the technological limits of what we can land on Mars, in terms of size and weight," said Steve Jurczyk, Nasa's Associate Administrator.
"We landed about 1 metric ton, the Curiosity Rover, it was about the size of a mini cooper, one metric ton, or 2200 pounds, and that's about all we can do with the current technology that we use," Jurczyk said.
"The parachute we're using today can improve performance for landing mass by 100 to 200 percent and that's really critical for not only future enhanced robotic missions, but human exploration of Mars," explained Jurczyk.
The test, which will be performed over the Pacific Ocean, will simulate the supersonic entry and descent speeds at which the spacecraft would be traveling through the Martian atmosphere.
At launch, a giant balloon will carry the LDSD to 120,000ft. The balloon will release and a booster rocket will lift the saucer to 180,0000ft, accelerating to supersonic speeds, traveling at about three times the speed of sound.
The second test flight is scheduled for launch at 10.30am from the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii.