NASA could crash land its Mars missions in the future — here's why

Its SHIELD concept acts like a car's crumple zone to protect valuable equipment.
Jijo Malayil
An illustration of SHIELD
An illustration of SHIELD

California Academy of Sciences  

To reduce the complexities of further space missions, NASA is moving ahead with its SHIELD lander concept, designed to absorb a hard impact during its future touchdowns on various celestial bodies. The current prototype consists of an inverted pyramid of metal rings that absorb impact. 

In the past, NASA has successfully landed its equipment on Mars nine times, with systems that made use of cutting-edge parachutes, massive airbags, and jetpacks to set spacecraft safely on the surface. 

According to the space agency, NASA is looking at alternatives for slowing a spacecraft’s high-speed descent. The team is developing an 'experimental lander design called SHIELD (Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device).' This would use an accordion-like, collapsible base that acts like the crumple zone of a car and absorbs the energy of a hard impact, stated a recent press release.

What are the benefits of crash landing future space missions?

The quest for a newer landing system can be attributed to the immense cost incurred while developing deep space exploration missions. "The new design could drastically reduce the cost of landing on Mars by simplifying the harrowing entry, descent, and landing process and expanding options for possible landing sites," according to the release.

“We think we could go to more treacherous areas, where we wouldn’t want to risk trying to place a billion-dollar rover with our current landing systems,” said Lou Giersch, SHIELD’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. 

The team at NASA is even looking at the possibility of landing several of these at different difficult-to-access locations to build a network. 

Testing of the SHEILD prototype proved successful

The team tested the SHEILD concept last August (2022) with the full-size prototype of SHIELD’s collapsible attenuator loaded on a drop tower for evaluating its efficiency. The prototype had a smartphone, a radio, and an accelerometer to simulate the electronics a spacecraft would carry. 

The launcher propelled the structure into the ground at 110 miles per hour (177 kilometers per hour), a speed intended to replicate the velocity encountered by a Mars lander after getting slowed down by atmospheric drag. The team also used a "steel plate 2 inches (5 centimeters) thick on the ground to create a landing harder than a spacecraft would experience on Mars."

The onboard accelerometer later revealed that SHIELD impacted with a force of about one million newtons – comparable to 112 tons smashing against it. The impact of the collision was rated at about one million newtons, which is comparable to 112 tons smashing against it.

The result showed that the simulated electronic payload inside the structure survived the impact. “The only hardware that was damaged were some plastic components we weren’t worried about. Overall, this test was a success," said Giersch. 

With the test's success, the SHIELD team is in the process of "designing the rest of a lander in 2023 and seeing just how far their concept can go."

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