NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator technology development project


Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility,
Physical Science Laboratory

NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator Technology Development Project

(April 4, 2012)  A Research Rally was held today to celebrate NASA awarding New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory a $12.5 million contract supplement to support the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator project which aims to get larger, heavier payloads to land safely on Mars.  The project is a joint effort among the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, operated by NMSU/PSL for NASA.  “We do some very innovative activities at Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility,” said Steve Hottman, deputy director of PSL. “Traditionally, you think of payloads being underneath a balloon. In the past, we have put payloads on top of balloons. We have done a lot of really unusual things with balloons to help scientists collect the data they need.”

Danny BallDanny Ball, site manager of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, said the impetus behind this project is that NASA needs to land larger, heavier payloads on the surface of Mars.  “The problem with landing on Mars is that it’s difficult,” Ball said. “The atmosphere is very thin. The surface density on Mars is equivalent to the same density we have at an altitude of 100,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.”  Little progress has been made in refining techniques to slow vehicles during decent into the Martian atmosphere since the 1972 Viking Lander project. Current Mars rovers are still inserted using the Viking parachute and the 1972 qualification data.  As Mars landers grow in mass, it becomes more difficult to decrease their speed enough during insertion to land safely. The objectives of the LDSD project are to develop new supersonic inflatable decelerators and supersonic parachute technologies to enable sending larger payloads to higher elevations on Mars with greater precision.

Through this effort, up to four 8,000-pound LDSD payloads will be lifted to an initial altitude of 120,000 feet by large scientific balloons that are 34 million cubic feet in volume with an inflated diameter of 460 feet. At that altitude, rocket motors will be fired to lift the payloads to 180,000 feet and a speed of Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound), simulating a Martian atmospheric entry. Inflatable decelerators will then be deployed to slow the vehicles to Mach 2 at which time parachutes will be deployed for final descent.  Because of the volatile nature of the test vehicle, standard dynamic balloon launch technique cannot be used. PSL and the Colombia facility will have to develop a new “static” launch technique. The new technology will open up new opportunities in other areas of scientific ballooning as well.

Ball said the $12.5 million funding will be allotted over two years. That money will be used to design and build three major pieces of equipment: a stationary tower that the payload can hang from during the launch process; a center pivot that lays out the balloon; and a spool vehicle that is able to restrain the balloon while it is inflating.  Up to six tests will be conducted from the Pacific Missile Range in Hawaii.  Data recovered during this mission will aid NASA in planning future manned and unmanned missions to Mars.

NMSU President Barbara Couture said she and NMSU Vice President for Research Vimal Chaitanya had an opportunity to visit the balloon facility, located in Palestine, Texas.  “This scientific balloon facility, arguably, is the only facility in the world that can do the work that it does,” Couture said. “We actually can do scientific research at near space levels with scientific balloons at a fraction of the cost that it takes to do such scientific research in a space station, for instance.” 

Article by Audry Olmsted; photo by Darren Phillips.  See more at

Project funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 

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