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NASA flying saucer set for test flight

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NASA/JPL-Caltech image NASA/JPL-Caltech image
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NASA is just about ready to test-launch its so-called flying saucer into the edge of space.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator is literally a flying saucer. The original launch date of June 3 was scrubbed several times because of high winds.  NASA is now looking at late June for a launch date.

"The agency is moving forward and getting ready for Mars as part of NASA's Evolvable Mars campaign," said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters, in a news release. "We fly, we learn, we fly again. We have two more vehicles in the works for next year."

The purpose of the test flight, which will originate at the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, is to compile data on landing heavy payloads on Mars or other planetary surfaces, NASA said.

The way the saucer launches is utterly unlike any other kind of NASA launch: a huge helium balloon carries the LDSD 120,000 feet up in the air and then releases it. Less than two seconds later, four small rockets fire to stabilize the saucer. Then a solid-fuel rocket ignites with 17,500 pounds of thrust, propelling the saucer to the edge of the stratosphere, according to NASA.

A fraction of a second after dropping from the balloon, and a few feet below it, four small rocket motors will fire to spin up and gyroscopically stabilize the saucer. A half second later, a Star 48B long-nozzle, solid-fueled rocket engine will kick in with

"Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere," said Ian Clark of the LDSD project at Jet Propulsion Lab, in a news release. "We top out at about 180,000 feet and Mach 4. Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8, we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems."

You can watch a live feed of the launch and test flight on NASA's online TV channel.

The LDSD by the numbers:

Vehicle: 6,878 pounds with fuel; 15 feet, 5 inches in diameter

Parachute: 100 feet in diameter

Launch balloon: inflates to 460 feet wide and 396 tall at moment of vehicle separation

Vehicle maximum speed: Mach 4

Source: NASA

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