LOS ANGELES (AP) - NASA is preparing to launch a saucer-shaped vehicle into Earth's atmosphere in an experimental flight designed to land heavy loads on Mars.
For decades, robotic landers and rovers have hitched a ride to the red planet using the same parachute design. But NASA needs a bigger and stronger parachute if it wants to send astronauts there.
Weather permitting, a high-altitude balloon will carry the test vehicle Tuesday from the Hawaiian island of Kauai to 23 miles over the Pacific where it will be dropped. Then the vehicle will fire its rocket and climb to 34 miles. The environment at this altitude is similar to Mars' thin atmosphere.
As the vehicle falls to Earth, a giant parachute should pop out and guide it to an ocean landing.