Today, NASA will be launching the next test flight of its unique flying-saucer shaped spacecraft designed for landing hefty payloads on the red planet Mars. The official name of this innovative vehicle is Low Density Supersonic Decelerator or LDSD. The LDSD is 15 ft or 4.5 m wide and has a body weight of more than 3 tons. One of its most fascinating features is its two-part braking system, which comes equipped with a huge parachute and an inflatable doughnut-shaped braking shield.

The braking shield, which NASA has named SIAD-R or Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, has been designed for unfolding and inflating the size and the atmospheric drag of the LDSD.

Once the vehicle slows down under its brake shield, it will be deploying a specially designed Supersonic Ring Sail Parachute; with a width of 33.5 m, it is the biggest parachute flown to date.

The technology embedded in the LDSD is not only perfect for enabling landing of hefty payloads on Mars’ surface, but also has the capacity of allowing landings at extremely high altitudes. Thus, the vehicle will give scientists access to a much wider area on the surface of Mars.

Until now, the heaviest spacecraft to have ever landed on the surface of the red planet is the Curiosity rover, a craft weighing 1 ton. Curiosity managed to land successfully using a pretty complex landing method that involved use of a sky crane and a supersonic parachute. The sky crane performed the job of lowering the rover onto the planet’s surface.

The landing techniques that are currently in use are pretty old. NASA has been using them since 1976 i.e. since its Viking Mission. During the Viking Mission, the red planet played host to twin landers.

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Now, the space agency is looking to land much heftier payloads including cargo, crew, vehicles and even human habitats onto Mars’ surface. As a result, it is focusing on developing new technologies that will allow landing systems to place payloads weighing up to 40,000 kg on Mars and other celestial structures.

This is just the beginning of the testing procedure. NASA will keep on testing the LDSD all through 2015; the vehicle will most likely be launched in 2020.