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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

2003 lander 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.

hazard avoidance 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 protection systems.

airbag landing system

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.

airbag landing system

pallette landing system 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 rovers 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.

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