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Large parachute fails to inflate in NASA’s second ‘flying saucer’ test flight

NASA's test run of a Mars landing system comes to a quick end when the saucer-shaped vehicle's parachute tears away over the Pacific Ocean. (Video: Reuters)
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NASA put on a spectacular show Monday when it tested its “flying saucer” even though the large, supersonic parachute designed to slow the craft down failed during the test.

The saucer-shaped vehicle, officially known as the low-density supersonic decelerator (LDSD), is used to test parachute technology that is necessary to land humans safely on Mars.

[NASA is about to test a ‘flying saucer’ in Hawaii]

The test began Monday by sending a giant balloon carrying the vehicle off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai and 23 miles up into the atmosphere.

The Associated Press reported that a booster rocket then lifted the vehicle to 34 miles into Earth’s atmosphere, an environment comparable to Mars’s thin atmosphere. At 34 miles, the descent began at four times the speed of sound.

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During descent, NASA also tested an inflatable doughnut-shaped cushion, also known as the supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator, that used atmospheric drag to slow the vehicle down from Mach 3 to about Mach 2.4.

Then, the test parachute was supposed slow the vehicle down even more but, according to NBC, “The chute popped out — but it didn’t unfurl.” NBC also reported that “controllers at NASA’s mission control said they saw a ‘partial chute,’ which suggests that the parachute didn’t open as planned. The stress of the supersonic airflow ripped the fabric apart.”

[Why the first American who walked in space liked it so much he didn’t want to leave]

Kimberly Newton, a spokeswoman for NASA, told the AP the parachute deployed but failed to inflate. “The parachute appeared to disintegrate in a video of the test,” the AP also reported. More details are expected during a NASA news conference Tuesday.

The test was the second of three for the LDSD project. Last year, NASA ran into a similar problem but the space agency redesigned the experimental supersonic parachute before Monday’s second test flight, according to Reuters.

[Video: LDSD 2014 supersonic test flight]

“This is exactly why we do tests like this,” NASA engineer and LDSD mission commentator Dan Coatta told Reuters after the test. “When we’re actually ready to send spacecraft to Mars, we know that they are going to work when that big mission is on the line.”

NASA hopes to have astronauts on the way to Mars in the 2030s.

More from Morning Mix about exploring space:

Why the first American who walked in space liked it so much he didn’t want to leave

Rare photos from the golden age of space exploration

These awesome SpaceX photos now belong to you — sort of