A saucer-shaped space vehicle has successfully completed a US$150 million mission into the Earth’s atmosphere, but a massive parachute—intended to guide the saucer to a splashdown in the ocean—failed to inflate properly. It had been hoped a version of the Nasa vehicle would eventually help astronauts get to Mars for the first time. Since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet in 1976, Nasa has relied on the same parachute design to slow landers and rovers after piercing through the thin Martian atmosphere.
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.
Mark Adler of the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Viewers around the world followed portions of the mission in real time by Internet thanks to cameras on board the vehicle. A balloon boosted the disc-shaped vehicle over the Pacific before its rocket motor then carried it up 55 kilometres at supersonic speeds. The environment that high up is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere. The test was postponed six previous times because of high winds. Engineers planned to analyse the data and conduct several more flights next year before deciding whether to fly the vehicle and parachute on a future Mars mission.