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NASA tests flying saucer craft for future manned mission to Mars

By Shelby Lin Erdman and Greg Botelho, CNN
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: NASA spokeswoman: The test appears to have been a success
  • NEW: The powered flight and descent of the test vehicle took 30 minutes, NASA says
  • NASA's newest spacecraft launches into the skies over Hawaii on a test flight
  • Safely landing a hurtling spacecraft is crucial for a human mission to Mars

(CNN) -- If you think you saw a flying saucer Saturday over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.

After several weather-related delays this month, NASA's new spacecraft lifted off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range facility in Kauai, Hawaii, on Saturday morning.

The space agency said its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, went up at 8:45 a.m. (2:45 p.m. ET), carried aloft by a giant balloon on a mission to test landing technologies for a future human mission to Mars.

Shortly after 11 a.m., the test vehicle dropped from the balloon and the "powered flight," as NASA described it, began. At this point, the disc-like LDSD was about 120,000 feet, or more than 20 miles, above Earth.

NASA said their current information indicates the spacecraft's rocket fired just as they hoped, with the expectation that it would rise up to about 180,000 feet, reaching the stratosphere.

Eventually, a donut-shaped tube inflated -- which makes the whole thing look like a flying saucer -- thus beginning the deceleration process. The next thing that was supposed to slow the vehicle's descent was a giant parachute, though NASA acknowledged it "did not deploy as expected."

The whole process ended with the vehicle's splashdown in the Pacific about 11:35 a.m., or 30 minutes after it was released from the balloon.

"From what we know, the test was successful," said Shannon Ridinger, a NASA spokeswoman.

Ridinger noted that noted NASA officials are still going through the data to assess everything what happened, noting that the only flaw known right now was that the parachute the space agency was testing had "an issue."

Project managers are expected to give a more thorough rundown of how things went on Sunday morning.

Current technology for decelerating from high speeds during re-entry into the atmosphere to the final stages of landing on Mars dates back to NASA's Viking Program, which put two landers on the Martian surface in 1976.

The basic Viking parachute design has been used ever since. It was successfully used again in 2012 to deliver the rover Curiosity to Mars.

Curiosity, by the way, just celebrated the anniversary of its first Martian year on the Red Planet.

NASA will need new and improved landing technologies to handle the larger spaceships of tomorrow and land them on rocky surfaces.

NASA's deep-space craft readying for launch

Happy anniversary! On Mars, Curiosity rover has done a lot in a long year

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