NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been busy playing around with an unconventional new type of lander that’s designed to crash onto the surface of Mars. In a newly released video, engineers have shown a prototype of the accordion-like lander being dropped from a tall tower – with some interesting, bouncy results.
The experimental lander design is called SHIELD, short for Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device. It’s essentially a disk-shaped lander that’s fitted with a spring-like crumple zone on its base, designed to absorb the shock of a hard landing.
You might ask why there’s a need for such a lander. After all, NASA has successfully touched down on Mars nine times, using a variety of techniques to soften the landing, including parachutes, airbags, and jetpacks. Well, it might not look graceful, but a crash landing could lower the cost of landing on Mars by simplifying the risky and costly process.
“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,” JPL's SHIELD project manager Lou Giersch said in a statement. “Maybe we could even land several of these at different difficult-to-access locations to build a network.”
The design draws on inspiration from NASA’s Mars Sample Return program that looks at ways precious samples from the Red Planet could be returned to Earth without any damage.
To test the design, the team brought SHIELD to the top of a 27-meter (90-foot) tower and dropped it with the aim of seeing whether the lander’s fiddly electronic instruments could survive the bounce.
SHIELD hit the floor at 177 kilometers per hour (110 miles per hour) in just 2 seconds. That is around about the speed you can expect a lander to reach as it plummets to the Martian surface after being slowed down by drag from the planet’s thin atmosphere.
The drop proved successful by all accounts. SHIELD’s spring-like base managed to soften the blow and launch it around a meter (3.5 feet) into the air. Its onboard accelerometer, which survived the impact, revealed that the lander impacted with a force of about 1 million newtons, which is comparable to 112 tons smashing against it.
“The only hardware that was damaged were some plastic components we weren’t worried about,” Giersch said. “Overall, this test was a success!”
So far, so good. The team is now looking to fine-tune their design next year and see whether this experimental design could really be a viable means to land on Mars.
Let's hope they have some other ideas for the landing of the first crewed mission to Mars...