Epic Inflatables: Landing on the Red Planet with Mars Rovers

Epic Inflatables: Landing on the Red Planet with Mars Rovers

The Mars Rovers: To Inflatables and Beyond!

When we first introduced our Epic Inflatables series earlier this month, we went on a quest to find the world’s biggest inflatable water slide. In this second entry into the series, we’re going to take things to a dryer—and dustier—place: the surface of the Red Planet. A place NASA was only able to explore thanks to inflatables.

We know that when most of you think of inflatables, you’re picturing bounce houses, inflatable water slides, or inflatable obstacle courses. But this series is meant to explore the outer reaches of inflatable technology in all sectors, so we can see a broader sampling of what advances might impact our industry in the future. And NASA made pretty big strides in those regards.

So without further ado, let's make another entry into the Epic Inflatables series, learning how the inflatable airbags used by the Mars Rovers played pivotal roles in their deployments on the Red Planet. And if you think your big bounce house slide combo is well-built, these NASA airbags are really going to impress you.

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Landing Mars Rovers on the Red Planet Isn't Easy

To say that landing robots on a foreign planet is difficult would be a major understatement. Even when it’s closest to Earth, Mars is nearly 34 million miles away. Traveling there is roughly the same distance as circling the Earth at our equator 1,365 times, or driving from New York City to Los Angeles 12,186 times. And you thought your kids got bored driving for a few hours on vacation this summer?

The density of Mars’ atmosphere, dust storms, rocky terrain, unforeseeable risks at a landing site … there are countless technical, navigational, and mathematical challenges to take into consideration on missions like these, too. For instance, gravity on the Martian surface is only about 38 percent as strong as it is here on Earth. Put another way, if something weighs 100 pounds here, it only weighs 38 pounds there.

To ensure the safest landing possible and protect the pricey $2.5 billion rovers, NASA needed to come up with an innovative approach to landing on the surface of Mars. And thanks in large part to inflatables, that’s precisely what they found when they landed the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997.

The Ingenious NASA Landing Airbags

The Mars Rovers used giant inflatable air bags to safely landAfter getting launched into space aboard a Delta II rocket, each rover’s aeroshell is sent hurdling through space toward Mars.  The aeroshell consists of a heat shield and a larger backshell, which protect their precious cargo from the intense heat of atmospheric entry, while also serving as a sort of “air brake” and slowing the equipment down as it approaches the surface.

Eventually, the aeroshell deploys a massive parachute made from polyester and nylon. The parachute is tethered to the backshell with a triple bridle made with Kevlar. Once it has slowed enough and the aeroshell has reached a suitable altitude, the heat shield separates from the aeroshell and small descent rockets are fired. Those rockets bring the payload to a full stop about 30 to 50 feet from the Martian surface. And that’s when the awesome inflatables take over.

When it’s time to land, the Mars Rovers use airbags made from a special lightweight, heavy duty synthetic material called Vectran. The airbags inflate rapidly and then work as cushions, breaking each rover’s fall and causing them to briefly roll to a stop on the Martian surface.

This technique was used on 1997’s Mars Pathfinder mission, as well as in helping Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity land on Mars on January 3rd and January 24th, respectively, in 2004. It’ll be used again when the Mars 2020 Rover makes its landing in 2021, too.

So far, all of the Mars Rovers—Pathfinder’s Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity—have vastly outperformed their initial designs and impressively surpassed their life expectancies. The rover Opportunity fell silent in February of 2019, and Curiosity is still chugging along today. But surely some portion of that durability stems from their impressively soft Martian landings.

One Small Bounce for Some Mars Rovers …

Once the Mars Rovers landed, the balloons stayed behind with the remains of their respective landers

It’s probably safe to say at least some of you reading this have already asked the same question I did when I first learned about the Mars Rovers’ airbags: How much fun would it be to bounce around inside something like that?

Today, the closest most of us will ever get to that experience involves rolling (or floating) around inside Zorb balls. But if any clever inventors are out there looking for a new party rental product to stun the world with, a safe, human variety of the NASA Mars Rover inflatables would be pretty cool.

Inflatables are going to be used for a whole lot more than landing rovers, too. In the future, we’ll likely look at the Large Inflatable Fabric Environment, also known as LIFE, a massive inflatable habitat that may one day be used for housing human explorers visiting the Red Planet.

Have some suggestions for epic inflatables you’d like us to feature down the road? Comment below and tell us what you’d like to see added to this fun series!

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