Washington: What will it take to land heavier spacecraft on Mars? How will engineers slow large payloads travelling at supersonic speeds in the thin Martian atmosphere?
To answer such questions, NASA is all set to test a saucer-shaped experimental vehicle - named the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) - in the Hawaiian island of Kauai on Tuesday.
The test will play a vital role in Mars exploration by making it possible to land heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet.
The new technology for its flight to Mars is inspired by the behaviour of pufferfish.
Pufferfish are poor swimmers but can quickly ingest huge amounts of water to turn themselves into a virtually inedible ball several times their normal size.
For the pufferfish, it is simply a defense mechanism. For NASA, it is potentially the element that links to the future of space exploration.
The current technology for decelerating payloads dates back to NASA`s Viking Programme which placed two landers on Mars in 1976. That same technology is still being used and most recently delivered the Curiosity rover to Mars in 2012.
"Future robotic missions to Mars and even future human exploration will require more massive payloads than previously sent to the surface of the Red Planet. To accomplish these goals, we are developing new systems to deliver this important cargo to the surface of Mars," the statement read.
LDSD will use a 20-foot diameter, solid rocket-powered balloon-like vessel called a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) to test these capabilities.
To reach the desired altitude of 120,000 feet, the LDSD project will use a helium-filled scientific balloon provided by NASA`s Wallops Flight Facility and Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.
When fully deployed, the balloon itself is over 34 million cubic feet.
"At that size alone, one could fit a professional football stadium inside it," NASA explained.
At that altitude, the test article will be detached from the balloon and a solid rocket motor will be employed to boost the test article on a trajectory to reach supersonic speeds (Mach 4) needed to test the SIAD.
Once at supersonic speeds, the deployment and function of the inflatable decelerators will be tested to slow the test article to a speed where it becomes safe to deploy a supersonic parachute.
The balloon and test article will be recovered from the ocean, the statement added.