Landing on a planet millions of kilometers away from Earth is incredibly
challenging. Today, engineers can navigate a spacecraft to an area
on Mars no smaller than 161 x 97 km (100 x 60 miles) in size, where it must land
blind to any surface hazards. However, it is protected by a robust
but heavy airbag landing system.
Smart Landers of the Future
In the future, we want landers that achieve safe landings by
guiding themselves to much smaller target zones--down to a few
hundred meters in size--and are able to dodge large hazards like boulders
and crevices at the very last moment. In case they aren't aware
of a last-minute hazard, these landers will carry impact protection
systems that will be lighter than those on our present landers.
To reach such safety and accuracy goals, our landers of the
future must be "smart." They will need precision
navigation systems to guide them down a narrow corridor towards
the Martian surface and onboard sensors to act as their eyes,
examining the terrain from about one kilometer above the
planet's surface. They will also require innovations in impact
New Landing Gear Designs
Since the Martian surface consists of steep inclines and rock
fields, new landing gear is being designed to survive impact
on very uneven and rough terrain. Two concepts for landing gear
are being considered. The first plan would encase the lander in
air bags similar to those used on the 1997 Mars Pathfinder. The lander would
look like a big bouncing ball. In order to prevent this "ball"
from rolling down steep terrain once it lands, new air bag
technology would be able to stop this motion.
The second design being considered is a structure that acts as
a shock absorber to protect the main body of the lander. This
shock absorber would also have legs to help stabilize the craft
upon landing. Both the shock absorber and legs could crumble
or be destroyed without jeopardizing the main lander.
Greater Carrying Capacity
These sophisticated technologies will also allow future landers
to carry more equipment. This greater "load" ability
will help make it possible to conduct missions that are not feasible
with current technology. One such mission under consideration
would collect rock and soil samples from Mars and return them
to Earth. Another mission benefiting from a heavy lift capability
would carry equipment for drilling deep beneath the Martian
surface in a search for liquid water and possible extant life
on the Martian surface.
Many future landers will also carry
that can travel over several kilometers of the surface. This ability,
coupled with accurate and safe landings, will allow us to
investigate surface features that are currently too difficult to
access, opening up whole new worlds of discovery.