NASA Tests Future Mars Landing Technology

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project will test inflatable decelerators The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project will test inflatable decelerators and advanced parachutes in a series of rocket sled, wind tunnel, and rocket-powered flight tests to slow spacecraft prior to landing. This technology will allow NASA to increase landed payload masses, improve landing accuracy and increase the altitude of safe landing-sites. (NASA)
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June 08, 2012

Traveling 300 million miles through deep space to reach the planet Mars is difficult; successfully landing there is even harder. The process of entering the Red Planet's atmosphere and slowing down to land has been described as "seven minutes of terror."

During the first four minutes of entry, friction with the Martian atmosphere slows a spacecraft considerably. But at the end of this phase, the vehicle is still traveling at over 1,000 mph (1,609 kilometers per hour) with only 100 seconds left before landing. Things need to happen in a hurry. A parachute opens to slow the spacecraft down to "only" 200 mph (about 322 kilometers per hour), but now there are only seconds left and the spacecraft is approximately 300 feet from the ground. From there, the spacecraft may use rockets to provide a gentle landing on the surface, airbags to cushion the impact of a free fall or a combination of rockets and tethers to lower a rover to the surface.

Landing payloads that are large enough to bring humans and sustain their survival on the Red Planet is still beyond our capability. The same parachute design developed for the Viking missions in the 1970s has been used for all U.S. missions to the surface of Mars, including the Curiosity rover that will land in August of this year. To conduct advanced exploration missions in the future, however, NASA must advance deceleration technology to a new level of sophistication.

"We have now outgrown that capability and need to develop a larger parachute that will enable a larger payload," said Mark Adler, project manager for a new technology demonstration task at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Enter the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project, an ambitious technology development and demonstration effort the likes of which has not been attempted since before the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970's. The project will test inflatable decelerators and advanced parachutes in a series of rocket sled, wind tunnel, and rocket-powered flight tests.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington. The mission is one of nine missions reporting to the Technology Demonstration Missions Program managed at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

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NASA continues to develop space technologies such as these to enable future deep space missions with exciting new capabilities for humans to explore and discover.

For more information on new space technology and innovations, visit the Office of Chief Technologist website:

Priscilla Vega 818-354-1357
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Kim Newton, 256-544-0034
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.


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