The space agency postponed a launch Wednesday and later scrubbed a scheduled Saturday attempt. It was to test a disc-shaped vehicle and giant parachute off the Hawaiian island of Kauai under atmospheric conditions similar to Mars.
In order to land craft on Mars NASA is focusing on new ways to slow them down before they hit the surface. The Martian atmosphere is only one-percent as thick as the Earth's atmosphere -- which does not allow for ample time to slow an object down once it starts to descend into the planets layers.
The decellerators that NASA is working on are created to be very very large in order to slow the craft down to a few hundred miles per-hour prior to deploying a parachute to carry it the rest of the way down to the surface.
The new 'flying saucer' that NASA intends to test out on Earth's atmosphere as a ring of soft goods wrapped around it that inflate in approximately 1/3 of a second into a large balloon shape around the saucers outer perimeter. The goal is for the balloons to create enough drag to slow the craft down once it enters into the atmosphere to allow it to be able to deploy its parachute system. This is the first part of what NASA intends to use as a slowing down process once it is able to be deployed on a mission to Mars.
NASA still relies on some of the basic designs developed more than 40 years ago to land the Viking spacecraft on Mars, principal investigator Ian Clark of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said earlier this month.
"We've been using the same parachutes for several decades now," he said. "If we want to eventually land a human on the surface of Mars, we realized we need to develop new technologies."
NASA's latest rover on Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory, weighed about a ton. The new technology being tested would allow the landing of a load twice as heavy, and the use of multiple parachutes could mean even spacecraft of 20 to 30 tons could make a soft landing, Ian Clark of NASA's JPL said.
Mission managers are deciding their next move, including possibly extending the two-week test flight window that began last Tuesday. NASA has invested $150 million in the mission and any extension would cost money.