Tools for Martian Survival

A test program for two planets.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator is designed to enable large payloads to be safely landed on Mars.

Even as it works out a way to safely land humans on Mars, NASA is developing some of the technologies that will enable astronauts to survive there. On the Mars 2020 rover, for example, one experiment called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment) will suck in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and pump out pure oxygen for rocket fuel, or for humans to someday breathe. Another, called MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer), will measure temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, and dust particles. Knowing those climatic conditions would be useful to astronauts working on Mars.

In late June, NASA flew a rocket-powered, saucer-shaped landing technology test vehicle in the skies over Kauai, Hawaii. The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator was carried by a high-altitude balloon to 120,000 feet. Then it was dropped, and its rocket boosted the saucer to Mach 3.8 and up to 190,000 feet, where the atmosphere is similar in density to that of Mars. At that point, a doughnut-shaped tube 20 feet in diameter, called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, inflated, slowing the saucer to about Mach 2.5. The saucer then deployed a 100-foot-diameter parachute, the world’s biggest supersonic chute, which shredded as it inflated. The chute and saucer, which was designed to float, splashed down about 40 minutes after being dropped from the balloon and were retrieved by ship. The saucer wasn’t damaged and will be re-used next summer, when the parachute will get two more chances to inflate without shredding.

“This flight was really just a shakeout flight,” says Ian Clark, principal investigator at JPL. “We got to put these technologies on a year ahead of schedule. The real test will be next year.”