One way to land on Mars – crash into it!

Here’s a good pub trivia question. How many times has NASA landed on Mars?

The answer is 9 times, going back to the Viking 1 and 2 landers in 1976. The most recent was the Perseverance rover in 2021.  (We’re not counting the take offs and landings of the Ingenuity helicopter which has successfully flown multiple times from the Martian surface.)

How these various robotic landers have touched down on the Martian surface have varied greatly. All have used an aerodynamic shell to protect the lander from the heat of entry into the Martian atmosphere. From there parachutes are deployed to slow the descent of the lander as it approaches the surface.

It’s not the falling that hurts, it’s stopping suddenly that causes the problem.

The final few metres of the descent is the most critical. Mars landers like Viking used a series of different techniques to make the final touchdown on the surface. The original Viking landers of 1976 used parachutes to slow the descent at entering the Martian atmosphere and then fired retro-rockets to slow the final part of the voyage for a slow, but slightly bumpy touchdown.

Dr. Carl Sagan with a mockup of NASA’s Viking Lander

This was a successful, although complex technology for the time. Other methods have included using inflatable airbags to protect from the final landing impact as used by NASA’s twin Mars Spirit and Opportunity rovers through to the remarkable “Skycrane” that lowered NASA’s Perseverance rover onto Mars in 2021. One the rover was deposited on the surface, it flew a short distance away and crashed.

Illustration of Perserverance landing on Mars

This proved to be another successful, though heavy, complex and expensive way to land on Mars.

A bold new method for landing on Mars has been suggested called SHIELD (Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device).


Concept of a future Mars mission landing using SHIELD

Many would be aware that car crashes are more survivable compared to even a couple of decades ago. What might have been fatal accidents in years gone by are now survivable and people often walk away from impacts that would have caused severe injuries in the past. While airbags contribute to modern car safety, another major factor have been improvements in car’s designs, mainly around “crumple zones”. These are major vehicle structures the deform or crumple in a calculated and controlled way during an impact. It effectively slows the rate of deacceleration transmitted to the car’s occupants.  It results in more damage to the car but reduces injuries.

Now NASA is looking at using a crumple zone style system for protecting future Mars landers. 

Not only could SHIELD protect landers more effectively and at a lower cost, its simplicity and reliability might open up sites on the Martian surface for landings where the traditional methods could be risky.

“We think we could go to more treacherous areas, where we wouldn’t want to risk trying to place a billion-dollar rover with our current landing systems,” said SHIELD’s project manager, Lou Giersch of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Maybe we could even land several of these at different difficult-to-access locations to build a network.”

It’s also possible SHIELD could be used on moons and other planets.

The concept was tested in August 2022 with a test drop that hit the ground at some 180 km/h. Its payload – a smart phone, a radio, and an accelerometer to simulate the electronics a spacecraft would carry – all survived and “landed” in working condition. As a proof-of-concept SHIELD has shown a promising method to reduce the cost and complexity of landing on Mars.

You can read the full more here.


Earl White




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