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'Flying Saucer' Built By Nasa May Visit Mars
A saucer-shaped space vehicle has successfully completed a $150m (£88m) mission into the Earth's atmosphere - and may now head to Mars.
It is hoped a version of the Nasa vehicle will eventually help to get astronauts onto the red planet for the first time.
The mission tested the design, complete with a giant parachute designed to deliver heavier loads to Mars.
Since the Viking craft landed on Mars in 1976, Nasa has relied on the same parachute design to slow landers and rovers piercing through the Martian atmosphere.
That design has restricted loads to about one-and-a-half tons.
The new design hopes to increase load limits to approach the 10 tons necessary to get humans onto the planet.
Despite small problems like the giant parachute not deploying fully, Nasa deemed the latest mission over Hawaii a success.
"What we just saw was a really good test," said Nasa engineer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Viewers around the world followed portions of the mission in real time by internet thanks to cameras on board the vehicle.
A balloon boosted the disc-shaped vehicle over the Pacific before its rocket motor then carried it to 34 miles (55 kilometers) high at supersonic speeds.
The environment that high up is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere.
As the vehicle prepared to drop back the Earth, a tube around it expanded like a Hawaiian puffer fish, creating atmospheric drag to slow it down.
Then the parachute unfurled and guided the vehicle to an ocean splashdown.
At 110 feet (33m) in diameter, the parachute is twice as big as the one that carried the one-ton Curiosity rover through the Martian atmosphere in 2011.
Engineers plan to analyse the data and conduct several more flights next year before deciding whether to fly the craft and parachute on a future Mars mission.
"We want to test them here where it's cheaper before we send it to Mars to make sure that it's going to work there," project manager Mark Adler said.