Why Is NASA trying to crash Earth on Mars?

SHIELD is an idea for a Mars landing that would allow low-cost missions to reach the planet’s surface safely by employing a collapsible foundation to absorb impact. California Academy of Sciences, inc.

The SHIELD Experimental Landing Vehicle is designed to absorb high-energy shocks, such as those experienced in the vehicle’s crash zone.

Mars was visited nine times, each time using cutting-edge parachutes, massive airbags, and jetpacks to safely land on the surface. Engineers are now investigating whether crashing is the quickest way to reach the Martian surface.


An experimental lander design known as SHIELD (Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device) would use an accordion-like, collapsible base that functions like a car’s crumple zone and absorbs the energy of a severe impact, as opposed to slowing a spacecraft’s high-speed descent before touching down.

The new design might significantly lower the cost of landing on Mars by streamlining the terrifying entry, descent, and landing procedure. Additionally, it might increase the range of potential landing pages.

With the help of a collapsible, shock-absorbing foundation that could safely fall into the Earth, the SHIELD Mars landing concept might enable low-cost missions to travel to the Martian surface. NASA should be credited. JPL-Caltech

According to SHIELD’s project manager Lou Giersch of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, “We think we could go to more hazardous locations, where we wouldn’t want to risk trying to deploy a billion-dollar rover with our existing landing systems.” “Perhaps we could even land many of these to create a network at other hard-to-reach sites.”

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Vehicle Crashes and Mars Landings

Work completed for NASA’s Mars Sample Return campaign had a significant influence on much of SHIELD’s design. The Perseverance rover is collecting rock samples in sealed metal tubes as the initial phase in that campaign. In the future, a spacecraft will safely crash land in a barren area while transporting those Martian samples back to Earth in a small capsule.

Engineers began to question if the fundamental concept was reversible after researching methods for that procedure, according to Velibor Cormarkovic of the SHIELD team at JPL.

“Why can’t you land something heavy on Mars, he asked, “if you want to land something heavy on Earth?” If we can successfully land on Mars, we will know SHIELD is able to function on planets or moons with thicker atmospheres.”


On August 12, this SHIELD prototype base was tested in a drop tower at JPL to simulate the impact it would experience landing on Mars. SHIELD is a collapsible Mars lander that would allow a spacecraft to intentionally crash land on the Red Planet, absorbing the impact. NASA, JPL, and Caltech

Engineers had to demonstrate that SHIELD can shield delicate electronics during landing in order to determine whether the theory would actually operate in practise. The scientists tested the durability of Perseverance’s sample tubes in a hard Earth landing using a drop tower at JPL that stands over 90 feet (27 metres) tall. It has a massive sling, known as a bow launch mechanism, that can launch an item onto the surface at speeds comparable to those experienced during a landing on Mars.

Cormarkovic previously tested vehicles that had crash dummies for the automotive sector. Some of those tests involve crashing the cars into a wall or other deformable obstacle while they are being pulled along on sleds at high speeds. There are several methods for accelerating the sleds, including using a sling similar to the bow launch system.


“The SHIELD tests we’ve done are kind of like a vertical version of the sled tests,” Cormarkovic explained. “However, rather of hitting a wall, the abrupt stop is caused by a smash onto the ground.”

Fantastic Success

On August 12, the crew convened at the drop tower with a full-size prototype of SHIELD’s foldable attenuator, an impact-absorbing inverted pyramid made of metal rings. To simulate the electronics carried by a spacecraft, they hung the attenuator from a grapple and inserted a smartphone, a radio, and an accelerometer.

They were perspiring as they saw SHIELD gradually ascend to the tower’s peak.

A bow launch system on this drop tower at JPL can propel test objects 110 mph into the ground, simulating the forces they would encounter during a Mars landing. NASA/JPL-Caltech credit

Another SHIELD project participant at JPL, Nathan Barba, commented, “Hearing the countdown gave me goosebumps.” The entire team was eager to find out whether the prototype’s items would withstand the impact.

The bow launcher blasted SHIELD into the ground at about 110 mph after only two seconds of waiting (177 kilometres per hour). After being slowed down by atmospheric drag from its initial speed of 14,500 miles per hour (23,335 kilometres per hour) as it enters the Mars atmosphere, that is the speed a Mars lander gets close to the surface.

The “landing zone” for prior SHIELD experiments was made of soil, but for this test, the crew simulated a landing on Mars by placing a steel plate on the ground that was 2 inches (5 centimetres) thick. SHIELD was hit with a force of about 1 million newtons, which is equivalent to 112 tonnes smashing against it, according to the onboard accelerometer.

SHIELD impacted at a slight angle, then bounced about 3.5 feet (1 metre) into the air before flipping over, according to high-speed camera footage of the test. Since there was no bounce in the earlier testing, the team thinks the steel plate is to blame for the bounce.

When the team opened the prototype to retrieve the simulated electronic payload, they discovered that the onboard devices, including the smartphone, had survived.

“The only hardware that was damaged were some plastic components that we didn’t mind,” Giersch explained. “This test was a success overall!”

The next step will be to design the rest of a lander in 2023 and see how far their concept can go.

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