Nasa has unveiled technology for landing large payloads, including manned spacecraft, on Mars.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), scheduled to perform a test flight in June this year, was shown to media visiting Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on Wednesday.
The rocket-powered vehicle resembling a flying saucer was designed as a test bed for further development of technology that should one day help overcoming one of the major challenges related to a human mission to Mars.
Until today, the heaviest object ever landed on Mars was Nasa’s iconic Curiosity rover. About the size of a small car and weighing 900kg, Curiosity’s descent using a super-sonic parachute, rocket-powered braking and a unique space-crane technology was described as seven minutes of terror. Engineers and controllers watching the never before attempted feat admitted that with Curiosity, the limits of currently available systems had been reached.
However, a manned mission to Mars would require landing a payload 40 times as heavy.
"Landing Curiosity was landing a small nuclear car," Bobby Braun, former Nasa chief technologist and currently a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology said to Wired last year. "For a human-scale mission, we're talking about landing perhaps a two-story house, and then another two-story house with fuel and supplies right next to it."
An object with this mass wouldn’t be possible to slow down by parachutes in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere. On the other hand, Moon-style landing using downward-facing rockets would also be difficult as even the thin atmosphere would create extreme turbulence.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is therefore Nasa’s first milestone on the way towards a solution.
The vehicle, already thoroughly tested in laboratory conditions, was now said to be ready for its first stratospheric adventure that will take place at the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.
Nasa said the technology should be used in its next rover mission to Mars scheduled for 2018.
If successful, the concept could in the future help explore asteroids as well as other planets, or enable landing on sites at very high altitude on Mars.
Watch Nasa's video about the project below: