Landing safely on Mars is a real nail-biting event. Those gripping, jaw-dropping entry, descent, and landing (EDL) moments of dread after months of cruising to the Red Planet are scary business indeed.
The EDL community is busy working on new ideas on how to pierce Mars’ atmosphere, slow down speed, and drop payloads. A big and new mission is NASA’s Mars Sample Return project and the challenges facing this initiative.
In the short and long term, Mars is about to receive a load of landed material, not only to support further robotic investigations, but to bolster a human presence on this world. But getting down, salty, and safe on Mars remains a delicate balance of technical skill, mixed with hard-earned luck.
Related: Mars Perseverance rover spots shiny silver litter on the Red Planet (pictured)
“I see two big challenges,” said Zachary Putnam, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Landing really big things on the surface, for more advanced robotic missions and human exploration, and landing lots of smaller, cheaper things at relatively low cost,” Putnam said.
What awaits Mars is clear, Putnam said.
Being able to send many smaller payloads to the Martian surface at a lower cost, Putnam added, would take advantage of excess payload capacity on launch vehicles used to send larger payloads and take advantage of improved capabilities in spacecraft technology. small satellites.
“It would allow us to accept more risk because a few misses are less of a problem if there are a lot of landers, which could help us improve all of our landing technology over time,” Putnam said. “Additionally, there is the engagement of a larger and more diverse community of scientists and engineers, such as universities.”
The tallest tent pole
Also in view is Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology and associate director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena, Calif.
“I think what’s exciting is that Mars surface access technology is seeing new interest from companies and government technology programs,” Ehlmann told Space.com. “The Mars landing is the tallest tentpole to translate all investments in commercial space systems on the Moon to Mars, enabling cheaper and more frequent exploration of Mars.”
Ehlmann said there was a need for development for both small and large payloads. “This includes developing more cost-effective means than sky cranes to perform small science missions. Large-scale payloads that are assessed by humans also require different approaches,” she said.
For Ehlmann, six companies received seven contracts from NASA in September to build inflatable air deceleration systems for spacecraft entry, descent and landing operations and aerocapture missions. Potential NASA and commercial mission applications will benefit from this advanced technology.
twice the mass
For today, it all comes back to JPL’s focus over the past 20 years, said Allen Chen, director of engineering and system integration for JPL’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) program. “And that’s to land more on Mars…and land it even more precisely than before.”
Dealing with EDL experts is a key part of the MSR business; A sample retrieval lander holds a NASA-run Mars ascent rocket and a pair of Mars helicopters.
This lander would land near Perseverance’s location in Jezero Crater, load up collectibles on Mars, and then launch those pieces (and the atmospheric sample) back to Earth for detailed study.
“The sample-recovery lander now weighs just over two metric tons. That’s almost double what we landed with the Perseverance rover,” Chen told Space.com. “It’s a huge difference in terms of what we need to land. It’s so much bigger than what we’ve landed before,” he said.
Read more: Ingenuity helicopter on Mars heads for ancient river delta on 31st flight
The celestial crane concept – used for the Curiosity and Perseverance Mars landings – is not in play this round for the sample recovery lander. Rather, the craft is to extinguish using built-in retro flares.
Regarding the precise part of the MSR mission, Chen said there was a “double-down” on the use of Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN), a capability that provides relative position to the map that can be used to precisely target a specific landing. points on the surface of Mars while avoiding hazards.
Using TRN and adding plenty of fuel to the sample retrieval lander will allow the craft to land within 60 yards of a target. “We have to land an even bigger vehicle in a particular parking lot… in a particular parking space,” Chen said.
Additionally, an adaptive range trigger allows for even smarter self-decision of when the lander deploys its parachute.
And there’s more. The lander’s parachute itself expands to an 80-foot (24-meter) design. “We want to strengthen the parachute to be able to support the load of a much larger vehicle,” Chen said.
The ruckus of the rocket plume
The Mars Perseverance rover is already pre-scouting the landscape to help determine that primo parking space for a landing. “For the first time, we can see everything about the lander,” Chen said. “We’ll know exactly what’s out there and that’s a huge advantage.”
The goal is to land within a few hundred yards of where the Perseverance rover will be, or where the wheeled rover can easily climb to deliver Mars specimens to the Sample Retrieval Lander. Precautions will be taken not to land directly near Perseverance, Chen said, due to concerns over the ruckus created when the lander’s rocket plume blasts rocks and sand onto the surface.
“Given what we have at the moment and the need to land very precisely with a huge amount of mass, what you see for us is a big step forward, but really an evolution of what we have been doing. in the past. We’re excited to have the opportunity to show what we can do,” concluded Chen.
Twist in the curve
Since the early 1990s, Rob Manning, now chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been actively engaged in tracking the EDL on Mars.
As for MSR’s upcoming effort, “I won’t say the word is risk because I don’t know how to quantify the risks, but there are a lot of development challenges,” Manning said. “Hopefully we don’t come across any new physics.”
Looking beyond MSR, Manning said there was a “bend in the curve” for EDL.
“Supersonic Retro Propulsion is a whole new game,” Manning said. Supersonic retro-propulsion, abbreviated as SRP, is a method of decelerating a vehicle using supersonic retro-rockets.
“I think the big step function in the future is to try and try SRP on Mars, and make it work. I think it will work. Everyone agrees it might work. It’s just that we we’re all kind of a chicken,” Manning said.
The SRP work at JPL has benefited from cooperation with SpaceX and Elon Musk, the company’s chief. “They allowed us to monitor the quality of their booster returns flying in exactly the right area,” Manning said, noting a complicated phenomenon, such as the interaction of the rocket plume with the supersonic wake generated around the re-entering booster.
“It’s so hard to get into it by calculation…very hard to parse,” Manning said.
For the EDL community, there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of new research, new know-how, and hardware to showcase new capabilities.
“Especially the MSR thrust, the Sample Retrieval Lander fits perfectly between where we go with the large landing system and where we go after that, on a human scale,” Manning said.
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