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NASA testing new spacecraft landing techniques

By

Mar 28 2015

Artist impression of NASA LDSD testing rocket

Images courtesy of NASA

NASA testing new spacecraft landing techniques

Preparing for future large spacecraft to land on Mars, NASA is continuing testing the new technologies needed.

When a spacecraft prepares to land on a planet with an atmosphere, like Earth or Mars, it needs to slow down from supersonic speeds first.  As it moves into the atmosphere, speed is shed off in exchange for heat generation, and then finally the craft is slowed further by parachutes.  

Mars has a tricky atmosphere for landings due to its thin atmosphere.  The current technology, used most recently to place the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012 dates back to 1976 when first used to place two rovers on Mars as part of the Viking Program.  This technology has reached its maximum in terms of the amount of mass it can safely deliver to Mars.

If humans are to travel to Mars though, larger spacecraft will be required and new technologies employed.

NASA is working with three different concepts for the deceleration stage of these larger craft.  These technologies will slow the larger, heavier payloads from the supersonic speeds of atmospheric entry to the sub-sonic ground approach speeds necessary for a safe landing.  These devices are called Low Density Supersonic Decelerators (LDSD).  You have to love NASA’s nomenclature!

Two of these new concepts employ large inflatable drag devices and the third uses a new, large supersonic ringsail parachute.  These techniques increase drag while minimising the need for heavy heat shields or increased load of rocket fuels.

Testing of these devices is carried out in the Earth’s stratosphere where the atmosphere is thin, replicating that found on Mars.  NASA plans a range of full scale tests at supersonic speeds.  Supersonic flight tests began last year and will continue in 2015.

These new technologies may be used in Mars missions launching as early as 2020.