UPDATE: NASA scrubbed today’s (June 4) launch. Next attempt will be on Friday (June 5) at 1:30 pm EDT.

NASA’s trek towards Mars continues with a test of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD). Testing was set for today, but officials postponed it until tomorrow due to “unfavorable conditions.”

The next launch attempt is set for tomorrow at 1:30 pm EDT.

“This year’s test is centered on how our newly-designed supersonic parachute will perform,” said Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD. “We think we have a great design ready for the challenge, but the proof is in the pudding and the pudding will be made live for everyone to see.”

We get to see the same video feeds Adler will be looking at. Four cameras will show us and NASA officials how the LDSD performs during its test. Two cameras will focus on the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD). One camera will focus on the rocket motor firing. And, the final camera will show the spacecraft’s parachutes being deployed.

“What we will be looking most closely for is to see what happens on that fourth camera, when at Mach 2.35 our supersonic parachute is deployed,” said Adler. “It may be hard to see because the transmitted video is low resolution, but we hope to be able to make it out.”

The parachute is massive. Its diameter comes in at 100 feet, making it the largest parachute ever deployed. To put that in perspective, the parachute used to get the Curiosity rover on Mars was less than 50 feet in diameter.

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NASA has been using the same parachute techniques since the Viking mission put two landers on Mars in 1976. A new parachute is vital for future exploration missions whether it be human or robots.

Deploying a parachute at Mach 2.35 isn’t easy. The supersonic parachute has been an issue for the LDSD team. The vehicle and SIAD nailed last year’s test, but the supersonic parachute didn’t.

The supersonic parachute was shredded during inflation due to the extreme speed it deployed at. LDSD officials made several improvements to the parachute, and they are hoping for a successful test tomorrow.

The main improvement was switching the parachute’s configuration from 2014’s Supersonic Disksail to Supersonic Ringsail. Scientists learned a lot from last year’s test and had to rethink their approach to high-speed parachute deployment. This new configuration should make the parachute strong enough to survive the initial deployment.

LDSD supersonic parachute

When the parachute deploys correctly, it will generate more than 120,000 pounds-force of deceleration. It should have no problem decelerating the 6,808 pound (includes fuel) LDSD test vehicle.

How will the test work?

When you think of a spacecraft test, it usually starts with a rocket launch. But, that’s not the case with the LDSD test. A massive weather balloon will carry the LDSD test vehicle to an altitude of 120,000 feet. This balloon is 396 feet tall and 460 feet wide. It covers a football field and then some.

After that, the rocket motor kicks in.

Then, the most important part of the test – deployment of the supersonic parachute.

Where can you watch the test

NASA TV and JPL’s Ustream channel will cover the test with live camera feeds and commentary. The LDSD test has a launch window between June 2 – June 12 at 1:30 pm EDT every day. Today’s launch was scrapped due to unfavorable conditions. I’ll keep this post updated if NASA officials postpone the test any further.

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Why does this matter?

The LDSD test vehicle plays a pivotal role in any NASA mission to Mars. Going to Mars is a lot different than entering Earth’s orbit. First, the supply requirements for such a trip will be incredible. The LDSD will allow NASA to land these heavy payloads on Mars’ surface.

Getting the supersonic parachute to deploy properly is a must. Testing will not stop after tomorrow’s test. A third test is already scheduled for the summer of 2016.

Here’s to NASA nailing tomorrow’s test and getting one step closer to putting humans on another planet.

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