The key to a successful Mars landing is the same thing that matters in landing on any planet: You have to slow down before you hit the ground.
That's why scientists are testing a new supersonic parachute that they hope will advance the technology needed to land heavier-than-ever spacecrafts—like the kind that will eventually carry humans to the Red Planet. This week, NASA engineers are gathered at Hawaii's Pacific Missile Range Facility to launch their new Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a complex package of devices including an inflatable flying saucer and a huge parachute designed for Mars landings. The name of the test vehicle is Keiki o ka honua, or "child from earth" in Hawaiian.
Parachutes have long helped devices touch down on Mars—dating back to the first successful robot landing in July 1976—but this parachute is much, much bigger than the ones that have been used in previous missions. At 110 feet in diameter, the Keiki o ka honua parachute is more than double the size of the one that carried the rover Curiosity down to the surface of Mars in August 2012.
To simulate the speed of spacecraft coming in for a landing in the super-thin atmosphere of Mars, scientists are testing the LDSD at an altitude of 180,000 feet—that's 34 miles away from the surface of the Earth, or about 10 miles farther than the place where stuntman Felix Baumgarter jumped to parachute from near-space down to Earth. "We have to go halfway to the edge of space," said Ian Clark, LDSD principal investigator, in a conference call with reporters on Monday.