A NASA lander is going to crash… The project may seem a bit crazy. NASA plans to send a craft to crash into the surface of the red planet. It is indeed a way to test a new way to land there. The project, the details of which have been published on the website of the Jet Propulsion Laboratoryinvolves an experimental lander named SHIELD and the first tests are conclusive.
An experimental NASA lander named SHIELD
This NASA lander should eventually replace the current landing systems. The American agency uses them to land its ships on the planet Mars. Since it began to explore the red planet, NASA has succeeded several times in the feat of landing on the planet Mars. Since Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1975, nine spaceships have set foot on the Red Planet. Currently, three of them are still active. These are InSight, Curiosity and Perseverance. The first machine is immobile and is intended for the study of the internal structure of the planet. On the other hand, the other two have wheels to move on Martian soil, but at a relatively low speed.
Each landing of a spacecraft on the planet Mars is a technical feat that requires overcoming many challenges. Each time, the process of entering the planet’s atmosphere and soft landing on the ground requires a complicated and very expensive process. It is indeed necessary to protect the device which must arrive in one piece.
Until now, NASA has relied on systems intended to brake the speed of fall. It could be state-of-the-art parachutes but also systems to absorb shocks when in contact with the ground. Among these different means, NASA uses airbags and jetpacks. They are equipped with turbines that emit a jet of steam for a soft landing.
Now NASA engineers are coming up with an easier and cheaper way to reach the Martian surface. Rather than slowing down the descent of the craft to land on Mars, they simply intend to let it crash to the ground!
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A Martian crash test at 200 km/h
NASA engineers and technicians have developed an experimental lander model. And they intend to crash it on the planet Mars at the speed of 200 kjm/h! This prototype called SHIELD (Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device) is a completely original concept. The main element consists of a foldable base. It acts like the crumple zone of a car intended to absorb the energy of a violent impact.
What motivates the development of this new Martian lander system is the need to recover samples, in particular of Martian rocks. Samples that the Perseverance rover collects. When the time comes, a ship must bring these samples back to Earth aboard a capsule that will land safely and smoothly on Earth. This mission is very important. Indeed, it will allow to know in more detail the composition of the red planet.
NASA engineers figured that if it was possible to bring samples back to Earth from Mars and ensure a soft landing, it should be possible to do the same to land a craft on Mars.
SHIELD is a kind of shield. It has no braking system and is installed below the ship to land on the planet Mars. During the fall through the Martian atmosphere, the shield must absorb the very violent impact at the time of contact with the ground.
The craft would take advantage of the Martian atmosphere. Admittedly, it is less dense than that of the Earth, but it would slow its speed to just under 200 km/h before it hits the ground.
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Protect sensitive devices when landing
To test the SHIELD shield prototype, NASA engineers used a drop tower. 27 m high, this tower belongs to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is used to test the resistance of the sampling tubes. This tower is equipped with a system allowing SHIELD to be propelled at the same speed as that which it would reach during an impact on Mars, i.e. 200 km/h.
The researchers carried out a first test in a vertical position to simulate the fall. The future Martian lander struck a steel plate below the tower at the actual speed of 177 km/h in less than two seconds. This speed would more or less correspond to the speed reached by the Martian lander after being slowed down by the friction of the atmosphere of the red planet from its initial speed of 24,000 km/h. The impact was extremely violent since the on-board accelerometer recorded a force of 1 million newtons!
For the test, one overcomes the SHIELD shield of various electronic devices. Despite this colossal force that could suggest that everything was destroyed, this test was a success. The devices on board all survived the impact without any damage.
The next step is to set up an actual mission. It will test the effectiveness of this system on the planet Mars.