Integrating New Concepts for Entry, Descent and Landing for Future Human Missions to Mars

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Andy Tomaswick, an electrical engineer who follows space science and technology.

One of the most technically difficult tasks of any future manned missions to Mars is to get the astronauts safely on the ground. The combination of the high speed needed for a short trip in space and the much lighter Martian atmosphere creates an aerodynamics problem that has been solved only for robotic spacecraft so far. If people will one day walk Mars’ dusty surface, we will need to develop better Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) technologies first.

Those technologies are part of a recent meeting of the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI), The Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration conference, held June 12-14 in Houston, which concentrated on the latest advances in technologies that might solve the EDL problem.

Of the multitude of technologies that were presented at the meeting, most seemed to involve a multi-tiered system comprising several different strategies. The different technologies that will fill those tiers are partly mission-dependent and all still need more testing. Three of the most widely discussed were Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs), Supersonic Retro Propulsion (SRP), and various forms of aerobraking.

HIADs are essentially large heat shields, commonly found many types of manned reentry capsule used in the last 50 years of spaceflight. They work by using a large surface area to create enough drag through the atmosphere of a planet to slow the traveling craft to a reasonable speed. Since this strategy has worked so well on Earth for years, it is natural to translate the technology to Mars. There is a problem with the translation though.

HIADs rely on air resistance for its ability to decelerate the craft. Since Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, that resistance is not nearly as effective at slowing reentry. Because of this drop in effectiveness, HIADs are only considered for use with other technologies. Since it is also used as a heat shield, it must be attached to the ship at the beginning of reentry, when the air friction causes massive heating on some surfaces. Once the vehicle has slowed to a speed where heating is no longer an issue, the HIAD is released in order to allow other technologies to take over the rest of the braking process.

One of those other technologies is SRP. In many schemes, after the HIAD is released, SRP becomes primarily responsible for slowing the craft down. SRP is the type of landing technology commonly found in science fiction. The general idea is very simple. The same types of engines that accelerate the spacecraft to escape velocity on Earth can be turned around and used to stop that velocity upon reaching a destination. To slow the ship down, either flip the original rocket boosters around upon reentry or design forward-facing rockets that will only be used during landing. The chemical rocket technology needed for this strategy is already well understood, but rocket engines work differently when they are traveling at supersonic speeds. More testing must be done to design engines that can deal with the stresses of such velocities. SRPs also use fuel, which the craft will be required to carry the entire distance to Mars, making its journey more costly. The SRPs of most strategies are also jettisoned at some point during the descent. The weight shed and the difficulty of a controlled descent while following a pillar of flame to a landing site help lead to that decision.

Once the SRP boosters fall away, in most designs an aerobraking technology would take over. A commonly discussed technology at the conference was the ballute, a combination balloon and parachute. The idea behind this technology is to capture the air that is rushing past the landing craft and use it to fill a ballute that is tethered to the craft. The compression of the air rushing into the ballute would cause the gas to heat up, in effect creating a hot air balloon that would have similar lifting properties to those used on Earth. Assuming enough air is rushed into the ballute, it could provide the final deceleration needed to gently drop the landing craft off on the Martian surface, with minimal stress on the payload. However, the total amount this technology would slow the craft down is dependent on the amount of air it could inject into its structure. With more air come larger ballute, and more stresses on the material the ballute is made out of. With those considerations, it is not being considered as a stand-alone EDL technology.

These strategies barely scratch the surface of proposed EDL methods that could be used by a human mission to Mars. Curiosity, the newest rover soon set to land on Mars, is using several, including a unique form of SRP known as the Sky Crane. The results of its systems will help scientists like those at the LPI conference determine what suite of EDL technologies will be the most effective for any future human missions to Mars.

Read our previous article about the difficulties of landing large payloads on Mars, an interview with JPL’s Rob Manning.

Lead image caption: Artist’s concept of Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator slowing the atmospheric entry of a spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Second image caption: Supersonic jets are fired forward of a spacecraft in order to decelerate the vehicle during entry into the Martian atmosphere prior to parachute deployment. The image is of the Mars Science Lab at Mach 12 with 4 supersonic retropropulsion jets. Credit: NASA

Source: LPI Concept and Approaches for Mars Exploration

Upcoming First Human Mission to Chinese Space Station May Include Female Taikonaut

An artist's rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China's space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA
An artist's rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China's space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA


The Chinese government has announced they will launch three taikonauts sometime in mid-June 2012, on the first manned mission to dock with their orbiting experimental module, and confirmed again that the crew might include China’s first female space traveler. A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was moved to a launch pad in China’s desert northwest over the weekend, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported.

The three-member crew will dock with and live inside the Tiangong 1 (or Heavenly Palace-1) orbital module launched last year. No word on how long the mission will be. We reported in March that the crew possibly could include a woman, and Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of the country’s manned space program, said the final selection would depend on conditions nearer the time of launch.

This type of late announcement of the crew is not unprecedented – in the past, China’s space program has named the crew for the next mission just a few days before launch.

From previous reports, China picked two women and five men from thousands of candidates to become the second batch of seven astronaut trainees in 2010. Both of the women were former fighter jet pilots.

“The manned space program would not be complete without women’s participation,” Jiao Weixin, an earth and space scientist with Peking University, was quoted as saying.

China launched their first human mission in 2003. They have launched two other human missions, one of which included a space walk in 2008.

Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s human space program, said that the mission will be “a significant step in China’s space history”, because it’s the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to send astronauts into a space lab, instead of just carrying them to circle the Earth as in the previous three manned missions, the Chinese Daily reported.

During the flight, one crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 “as a precautionary measure in case of emergency” while the others enter Tiangong 1, Xinhua said.

We’ll keep you updated on any announcements of the crew or when the launch will take place.

The Chinese government last year announced a 5-year plan for space exploration that includes collecting samples from the Moon by 2016.

Sources: China Daily, Xinhua

Humans on Mars by 2023?

Artist concept of the Mars One lander, a variant on the SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Mars One

Reality TV goes to Mars! Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is leading a group visionaries and businesspeople who want to send four humans to Mars by 2023, and they say they can achieve their goal at an estimated cost of $6 billion USD. How can they do it? By building it into a global media spectacle. And oh, by the way, this will be a one-way trip.

“Who would be able to look away from an adventure such as this one?” asks Lansdorp in his bio on the Mars One website. “Who wouldn’t be compelled to watch, talk about, get involved in the biggest undertaking mankind has ever made? The entire world will be able to follow this giant leap from the start; from the very first astronaut selections to the established, independent village years later. The media focus that comes with the public’s attention opens pathways to sponsors and investors.”

As far as the one-way mission (a concept that Universe Today has written about extensively) the Mars One website notes, “this is no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future.”


The difference between this mission and the one proposed by Jim McLane back in 2008 is that McLane wanted to send just one person to Mars.

However, the Mars One group says that once the first trip is successful and Mars becomes developed, it will be “much easier to build the returning rocket there.”

In a Q&A on reddit, Lansdorp said the biggest challenge will be financing.

“We have estimated, and discussed with our suppliers that it will cost about 6 billion US$ to get the first crew of four people to Mars. We plan to organize the biggest media event ever around our mission. When we launch people to Mars and when they land, the whole world will watch. After that a lot of people will be very interested to see how ‘our people on Mars’ are doing.”

But the big challenge is that the biggest expenditures will be building the equipment before they send people to Mars. “This is why we are building a very strong technical case now. If we can convince sponsors and investors that this will really happen, then we believe that we can convince them to help us finance it,” Lansdorp said.

As far as technologies, Mars One expects to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy as a launch vehicle, a transit vehicle/space habitat built by Thales Alenia Space, a variant on the SpaceX Dragon as the lander, an inflatable habitat built by ILC Dover, a rover vehicle by MDA Space Missions, and Mars spacesuits made by Paragon.

The project website says “no new technologies” will be needed, but does any space agency or company really have a good handle on providing providing ample air, oxygen, energy, food and water for extended (lifetimes?) periods of time? Instead, the website provides more details on FAQ’s like, What will the astronauts do on Mars? Why should we go to Mars? Is it safe to live on Mars? How does the Mars base communicate with Earth? And the Mars One team emphasizes that this can be done with current technology. However, no one really knows how to land large payloads on Mars yet, so at least some development will be required there.

Who will go? Later this year they will begin to take applications and eventually 40 people will take part in a rigid, decade-long training program (which sounds very expensive) where the ‘contestants” will essentially be voted off the island to get to the final four astronauts. The selection and training process will be broadcast via television and online to public, with viewers voting on the final selected four.

It’s an intriguing proposition, but one filled with technological hurdles. I’ve just finished reading Ben Bova’s “Mars,” so I’m also thinking the Mars One folks will need to be on the lookout for micrometeorite swarms.

Mars One website.

Lockheed Accelerates Orion to Achieve 2013 launch and potential 2016 Manned Lunar Flyby

American astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft could be launched on a Lunar fly by mission in 2016 atop NASA’s Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle. Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Despite utilizing just half the work force originally planned and cutting back further on the original test program, Lockheed Martin is now accelerating the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) launch schedule and aiming to achieve an Earth orbital flight by 2013 and a human crewed flight as early as 2016. The first Orion crew cabin has been built and construction of the second spacecraft has begun.

What’s more is that a bold “manned mission beyond low Earth orbit and even a lunar fly by is possible in 2016 if NASA’s new heavy lift rocket is developed in time,” says John Karas, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight programs, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. A bipartisan majority in Congress recently approved funding for the Heavy lift booster and mandated that the first flight occur in 2016.

“In order to go to the moon, we need NASA’s new heavy lifter,” Karas explained. Orion was designed with the capability to fly human crews to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station, as well as beyond to deep space, the Moon, Asteroids, Lagrange Points and Mars.

Orion is NASA’s next generation crew vehicle and is intended to someday replace the Space Shuttle program, which will be fully retired just three months from now.

The second to last shuttle flight – STS 134 – is slated for launch this week on April 29 and President Obama and the entire First Family will attend.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion under a multi-year contract awarded by NASA in 2006.

First Orion Crew module
Orion crew module during recent installation of back shell panel at Lockheed Martin’s Vertical Test Facility in Denver, Colorado. Credit: NASA

Karas told me that the streamlined test program would involve flying one Orion mission per year – of increasing complexity – from 2013 to 2016. “Lockheed Martin is working with NASA to determine what are the right launch vehicles and the right missions.”

American astronauts could return to the moon in 5 years after a more than 40 year long hiatus.

Orion crew module at Lockheed’s Denver Space Faciilty. First Orion Crew module being outfitted with doors, windows and thermal protection system and more at Lockheed facilities in Denver. Credit: NASA

“Right now we are building a brand new crew cabin for the first Orion mission; OFT-1. But everything depends on the budget.”

“For the inaugural Orion test flight in 2013 NASA is considering a Delta IV Heavy booster rocket,” Karas said. “The Atlas V is not powerful enough to send the whole 50,000 pound spacecraft into orbit. With an Atlas we could only launch an Orion crew module. You would have to have delete the Service Module (SM) and /or other subsystems.”

“Orion would be lofted some 7,000 miles out, and then sent back for Earth reentry to simulate something close to lunar velocity, around 80% or so. So we would definitely be testing the deep space environment. Therefore the test flight would be a lot more involved than just a simple Earth orbital reentry.

“For the first Orion mission, we will put as much capability on it as possible depending on the budget,” Karas amplified. “But it’s unlikely to have solar arrays without a few hundred million more bucks. The capability is money limited.”

“The 2014 flight could be a high altitude abort test or perhaps something else.”

“Then a full up unmanned test flight would follow in 2015,” Karas explained.

“If we have a heavy lifter, the 2016 flight with the first human crew could be a deep space mission or a lunar fly by lasting more than a week.”

Orion crew module boosted by upper stage to the Moon and deep space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed has already constructed the initial Orion crew vehicle – known as the first article or Ground Test Article (GTA). The Orion GTA first article was built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, LA where I inspected it after the structural framework was welded into one piece.

Following the installation of mass and volume simulators and a successful series of pressure tests, the first article was then shipped in February this year to the company’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) located in Denver, Colorado.

“At Denver, we are going to finish the assembly of the first article by July of this year so it looks like a spacecraft – adding the doors, windows, thermal tiles and more,” Karas said. “Then it undergoes rigorous acoustics tests until September – known as Shake and Bake – to simulate all aspects of the harsh environment of deep space.”

The next step after that was to send it to NASA Langley for intensive water drop landing tests. But that plan may well change Karas told me.

“The first article – or GTA – is flight worthy. So we don’t want to break the spacecraft during the water landing tests. In the newly revised plan it may be used on the 2nd Orion flight in 2014 instead of reserving it for ground tests only. It would fly with a service module, but not solar panels. The first article could even be the first flight vehicle if the program funding is insufficient.”

Orion prototype crew cabin - GTA
Orion cabin view with astronaut crew hatch and window openings at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, LA is now undergoing testing and integration at Lockheed’s new state-of-the-art Space Operation Simulation Center (SOSC) in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We have only half the budget for Orion that was planned earlier by NASA,” Karas stated.

“1500 less people are working on Orion since 1 year ago from the start to the end of 2010 – and that number includes all the subcontractors. We had to lay off a lot of people, including some folks we intended to hire.”

“MAF is now focused on building the composite structures of the first Service Module with about 200 people. That’s about half of what should have been about 400 folks. The earlier work at Michoud (MAF) focused on the metallic structures of the cabin for the first article,” said Karas.

To a large degree, launching astronauts to deep space is more a matter of sheer political will power then solving technical issues. And it all comes down to the bucks.

If NASA’s Heavy lifter is not available an alternative scenario with other expendable rockets would have to be developed to achieve the escape velocity required to send a crew of astronauts to the Moon.

Lockheed Martin has independently proposed a stepping stone approach that would send astronauts in Orion spacecraft to challenging deep space targets such as the Moon, and elsewhere such as Asteroids, Lagrange points and Mars that have never been done before and which I’ll feature in upcoming articles.

“Exploration missions that are affordable and sustainable will inevitably lead to technological innovation, to scientific discovery, and to public inspiration and spark an interest in STEM careers that can help the United States counter the overwhelming numerical disadvantage in college graduates it faces in these disciplines in developing third-world nations,’ says Karas.

Read my recent Orion and Shuttle articles:

NASAs First Orion Capsule and New Space Operations Center Unveiled

NASAs First Orion Capsule Ships for Crucial Deep Space Tests

President Obama to Attend Endeavour’s Last Launch on April 29

Shuttle Endeavour Photo Special: On Top of Pad 39A for Final Flight

NASA Selects Museums in Florida, California, New York and the Smithsonian for retiring Space Shuttles

‘In Flight’ Shuttle Orbiter retirement display planned by Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Orion manned capsule launch atop Heavy Lift Booster
Orion could launch on a lunar flyby mission in 2016 atop NASA’s new Heavy lift booster from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Countdown to Yuri’s Night and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight !

Celebrate Yuri’s Night on April 12, 2011 -- 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (left, on the way to the launch pad) became the first human in space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
Newspapers like The Huntsville Times (right) trumpeted Gagarin's accomplishment.
Credit: NASA
Send Ken your Yuri’s Night event reports and photos

Mark your calendars. April 12, 2011 marks the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s astonishing First Orbit of our precious planet Earth on April 12, 1961. Gagarin was the first human to enter outer space and see what no one else had ever witnessed – our commonly shared Earth as a planet and beautiful blue globe with no borders.

Space enthusiasts worldwide are celebrating this watershed moment in Human history at a network of over 400 “Yuri’s Night” parties taking place in more than 70 countries on 6 continents and 2 worlds, according to the official “Yuri’s Night” website.

Gagarin’s flight took place in the midst of the inflammatory Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States and shocked the world into new realities. The Space Race led to the first lunar landing by the United States and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moons surface in 1969. Eventually, the world’s superpowers beat swords into plowshares and united their efforts to build the International Space Station.

Yuri Gagarin - first human in space. Credit: Russian Archives
Yuri Gagarin was the first person to boldly leave the bonds of Earth’s gravity and thus became the first “Spaceman”. Gagarin blasted off inside the bell-shaped Vostok 1 spaceship from the launch pad at Baikonur at 9:07 a.m, Moscow time (607 UTC) to begin the era of human spaceflight.

Gagarin flew around the Earth in a single orbit at an altitude of 302 kilometers (187 miles). The flight lasted 108 minutes and safely ended when he descended back and parachuted to the ground, just north of the Caspian Sea. At the age of 27, Gagarin was instantly transformed into a worldwide hero. After the momentous flight he soon embarked on an international tour.

20 years later on April 12, 1981, NASA’s first space shuttle blasted off on the STS-1 mission on a daring test flight with astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen strapped inside Space Shuttle Columbia.

Russian postcard featuring Yuri Gagarin

The first “Yuri’s Night – World Space Party” was held on April 12, 2001 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Gagarin’s spaceflight. Over 10,000 people attended 64 events located worldwide. The goal was to inspire people, increase awareness and support for space exploration across the globe and foster the spread of new ideas to broaden our access to space.

“Yuri’s Night” has been growing in popularity every year. Events range in size from a few folks to numbers in the thousands. Attendees range from astronauts and cosmonauts, NASA and global space agency officials and reps, scientists and engineers, famous actors, playwrights, writers, artists, athletes and musicians to just everyday folks and kids of all ages and backgrounds. Everyone can get involved.

Yuri Gagarin in orbit
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, documentary film maker Christopher Riley conceived and created a film titled “First Orbit” to try and show the approximate view of Earth that Gagarin actually saw. There is only scant footage of Gagarin’s actual flight and he himself took no pictures of the Earth from orbit.

“First Orbit” recreates much of the view of the Earth’s surface that Gagarin would have seen fifty years ago. Mostly he flew over the world oceans as well as the Soviet Union and Africa.

Riley collaborated with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, chiefly Paolo Nespoli of ESA, who took film footage from the new 7 windowed Cupola as the station matched the actual flight path of Gagarin and Vostok 1 as closely as possible. The free film celebrates 50 years of human spaceflight.

“First Orbit” premiers worldwide on YouTube in a special global streaming event for Yuri’s Night on April 12 . Watch the short trailer below, with original and stirring music by Philip Sheppard.

Orbital flight path of Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961
Gagarin’s call sign was Cedar or Kder - which means Siberian Pine in Russian. Map courtesy of Sven Grahn

It’s easy and free to register your local party at the Yuri’s Night event website. There is still time to register your Yuri’s Night party – Indeed the list has grown as I typed out this story !

Some events are already set to kick off this weekend. I’ll be presenting at an interactive and free Yuri’s Night evening event in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, about Gagarin’s flight and my experiences with the space shuttle and what‘s beyond.

Send Ken your “Yuri’s Night” event photos/short report to post in a round up story at Universe Today about the global festivities celebrating the historic achievement of Yuri Gagarin. Email kremerken at yahoo dot com

First Orbit Trailer II

Russian built Mini Research Module MRM-1 launched aboard US Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2010.
Shuttle Atlantis delivered MRM-1 (known as Rassvet) to the International Space Station.
MRM-1 undergoes final prelaunch processing inside clean room at Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Florida. Docking port to ISS is protected by red colored covering. Equipment airlock for experiments at top. Russian Flag mounted at left.
Rassvet underscores the cooperation that exists today, in stark contrast to their rivalry during the Cold War. Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada have now united their space exploration efforts to build the International Space Station. The worlds space powers cooperate in other space exploration projects today as well that venture to the Moon, Mars and beyond to Deep Space. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read Ken’s other stories about Yuri Gagarin and Yuri’s Night:
Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 Photo Album – 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
Stirring Video Tributes to Yuri Gagarin

Yuri’s Night Website
Yuri’s Night Party list
Yuri’s Night Party with Ken in Princeton Junction, NJ, USA
First Orbit Website
STS-1 NASA Mission Website
Ken Kremer