Big, beautiful photos of the giant flying saucer NASA is using to send humans to Mars

LdsdNASA/JPL-CaltechArtist’s conception of LDSD in flight above Earth’s surface.

The way we think of flying saucers is about to get a pretty serious makeover.

Instead of transporting aliens across the universe (as portrayed in sci-fi films), rocket-powered flying saucers could send the first humans to the surface of Mars.

At least, if everything goes according to NASA’s plans.

Right now, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is testing its low-density supersonic decelerator (LDSD) project, which includes the test model of an actual flying saucer that will carry heavier loads — including astronauts — to Mars in the not-too-distant future.

The technology NASA used to land its Curiosity rover on the red planet in 2012 won't cut it when it comes to heavier payloads like manned missions. So, NASA is pushing the boundaries of spacecraft technology with their LDSD project to design the safest, most cost-effective way of slowing a spacecraft down once it has entered the Red Planet's atmosphere.

The most cost-effective way to slow down larger loads as they approach Mars is to take advantage of the natural drag, or friction, in the atmosphere. The LDSD's large, flat, saucer-like surface will maximise this potential, generating a lot of drag to help slow it down as it falls to Mars.

Still, the craft could benefit from even more drag. That's why scientists created the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD). It slows it down even more by making the object larger.

Here, the SIAD is shown the center with the LDSD vehicle on the right. True to its name, SIAD is an inflatable tube that expands the overall size of the LDSD vehicle from 15 feet in diameter to up to 26 feet wide.

The SIAD does its job by wrapping around the body of the LDSD and then inflating with pressurised gas. NASA has two different versions of the SIAD: One that expands to make a circle 20-feet wide that could be used on future robotic missions and another that is 26-feet-wide for eventual manned missions.

The SIAD is designed to slow down a vehicle from speeds of 2,600 miles per hour or higher to 1,500 miles per hour or lower. To test the sturdiness of the LDSD vehicle and the SIAD material at those breakneck speeds, NASA engineers attach the LDSD vehicle to a rocket sled and then inflate the device once the vehicle reaches supersonic speeds.

However, SIAD can only slow the vehicle down to about 1,500 mph, still too fast to land safely. That's why NASA designed the largest supersonic parachute in history. After they fall, those parachutes sink to the bottom of the ocean. Here's a shot of one in the Pacific after a flight test of the LDSD vehicle in June last year.

The flight tests are used to show how well the SIAD and its parachute can slow down the LDSD vehicle. Although they're testing it on Earth, they want the conditions to resemble the supersonic speeds it would reach on Mars. So, they send the vehicle to 180,000 feet above Earth's surface. Here's a schematic of how the test worked.

First, a balloon took the LDSD most of the way. Keep in mind that the vehicle weighs over 6800 pounds, so it takes a powerful balloon to transport it to sky-high altitudes. Here's a picture of the balloon with LDSD hanging on at the bottom. From bottom to top, the entire contraption (balloon + LDSD) is taller than the Washington Monument.

At 120,000 feet above Earth's surface, the balloon lets go of its cargo. This picture was taken by a camera on board the LDSD.

After that, the rocket on the bottom of the vehicle fires up its engines, boosting it to 4 times the speed of sound and transporting it 60,000 more feet above the surface, where the atmospheric conditions are so thin that they resemble conditions on Mars. At that point, the SIAD inflates, slowing the vehicle down to speeds of about 1,500 mph.

Next, the 100-foot-wide parachute deploys as the LDSD makes its way back to Earth -- in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The entire test, from balloon launch to splashdown, lasts about 3 hours.

The balloons are launched from the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. Here are two members of the Navy's Explosive Ordinance Disposal team who helped retrieve the vehicle from its splashdown site.

Eventually, the vehicle gets fished out of the water with a powerful crane and shipped back to shore for more testing. Mark Adler, project manager for the LDSD said in a NASA statement that one test flight was a great success. 'The test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives,' he said.

Last year's successful flight test was just the first of 3. NASA has planned the next 2 tests for 2015. The next one is scheduled to take place in June. One of the main things they will hope to fix next time around is the parachute, which was torn to pieces during last year's test.

Exactly when this NASA-designed flying saucer will be ready to transport humans to Mars is unclear. But recently, famed scientist and science communicator Bill Nye -- together with The Planetary Society -- announced that after analysing NASA's budget with a panel of 70 experts, NASA could afford to land the first humans on Mars by the late 2030s.

Now check out where the flying saucer is headed:

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