How NASA and SpaceX are Working Together to Land on Mars

January 26, 2014 – 11:12 am

Thermal imagery of Falcon 9 rocket. Image Credit: NASA/Scifli Team/Applied Physics Laboratory ImagesIt is no secret that NASA is seeking out private space contractors to help bring some of its current plans to fruition. Naturally, these involve restoring indigenous launch capabilities to the US, but also include the more far-reaching goal of sending astronauts to Mars. Towards that end, NASA and SpaceX participated in an unprecedented data-sharing project that will benefit them both.

The project took place on Sept. 21st when, after multiple attempts, NASA and the U.S. Navy used a series of IR tracking cameras to capture footage of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable rockets in flight. The cameras recorded the rocket as the second stage engine ignited and the first stage, having detached and fallen away, reignited its engines to lower itself back to Earth for a zero-g touchdown on the sea surface.

The resulting data is being shared between the two parties and will benefit them both.

For SpaceX, the benefit comes in the form of the detailed information NASA is providing on temperatures and aerodynamic loading on the Falcon 9 rocket, which will help them in their efforts to develop a reusable rocket system. For NASA, engineers are getting a chance to collect data on supersonic retro-propulsion that may one day help them to lower massive, multi-ton payloads onto the surface of Mars.

“Because the technologies required to land large payloads on Mars are significantly different than those used here on Earth, investment in these technologies is critical, ” said Robert Braun, principal investigator for NASA’s Propulsive Descent Technologies (PDT) project and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He’s also NASA former Chief Technologist. “This is the first high-fidelity data set of a rocket system firing into its direction of travel while traveling at supersonic speeds in Mars-relevant conditions. Analysis of this unique data set will enable system engineers to extract important lessons for the application and infusion of supersonic retro-propulsion into future NASA missions.”

Supersonic retro-propulsion basically means generating supersonic thrust to shed velocity after atmospheric entry. Alongside aerobraking, this is one of the proposed means of landing heavy equipment and habitats on Mars.


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