NASA LEWIS RESEARCH Center's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, is conducting tests of an airbag landing-gear system which will provide the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft with a soft, upright landing when it lands on the rugged terrain of Mars in 1997.

The Mars Pathfinder is the first mission in the Discovery Programme, a NASA initiative to conduct small planetary missions with a maximum three-year development cycle and which cost no more than $150 million each.

The mission is designed to demonstrate key technologies and concepts for eventual use in future missions to Mars employing scientific landers.

In the past, spacecraft landings have been softened by retro-rockets, which fire intermittently as the craft nears a planet's surface. While retro-rockets are effective, says NASA, they are known to leave trace amounts of foreign chemicals on the surface.

Since one objective of this mission is to analyse the elemental composition of Martian rocks and soil, another method of landing had to be developed to avoid contaminating samples.

The NASA-designed airbag landing-gear system, manufactured by ILC Dover, is composed of 24 interconnected spheres, which will cushion the spacecraft upon impact with the Martian surface. The design has undergone a series of tests at Plum Brook's Space Power Facility, the world's largest vacuum chamber.

"Ground testing of the airbag landing-gear system under simulated Martian conditions is critical to the risk-reduction process," says NASA's Robert Kozar, head of the Plum Brook management office. "The Plum Brook data already indicate that the design concept is good, but optimisation of the final design still needs to be done, to improve safety margins."

The Mars Pathfinder spacecraft will be used to deliver scientific instruments for investigation of the structure of the Martian atmosphere, surface meteorology, surface geology, form, and structure.

In addition, a free-ranging surface rover will be deployed to conduct technology experiments and to serve as an instrument-deploying mechanism.

Source: Flight International