The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are triumphs for NASA, but why should the space agency rest on its laurels? Even though both rovers are rolling around on the Red Planet, NASA is hard at work on other vehicles for future Martian exploration, particularly spacecraft to deliver payloads. Their efforts are currently focused on supersonic parachutes and inflatable saucers to help slow and gently deposit cargo on the planet’s surface.
The technologies are a part of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project. As we continue to explore Mars, and other planets, we’ll need a way to transport larger loads. Spacecraft move at incredibly high speeds through the Martian atmosphere, so they need to decelerate quickly and safely, allow for a soft landing for whatever they’re carrying. Previous missions, such as the one that delivered Curiosity, have relied on the Viking parachute, which NASA has used since 1976. But a simple parachute doesn’t generate enough drag for the heavier equipment that future endeavors will need, especially if humans do try to colonize Mars.