In 2012, NASA made a big splash when it premiered a new landing system – Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) to be precise – that successfully put Curiosity on Mars. It was a complicated, staged system, much more involved than the prior approach of crashing spacecraft with cushioning airbags. But that complexity allowed NASA to land a more massive rover than had ever been previously attempted.
If humans are going to land on – and settle on – Mars, Curiosity’s EDL system isn’t going to cut it for the mass needed to maintain life on the surface. But with Mars’ thin atmosphere and reduced gravity, landing on Earth just is not a good analog. How can engineers make sure the system works before trusting people’s lives to it?
With a good deal of ingenuity, that’s how. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has devised a “low density supersonic accelerator” test that has to be seen to be believed…so check it out: