It’s a funny thing: We have the technology to launch and fly a craft all the way from our planet to other parts of the solar system, but one of the trickiest parts is sticking the landing. It’s one thing to drive across the country, but if you can’t park when you get there, you’re still stuck.
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are looking to solve the space-based parking problem with a new landing system dubbed Autonomous Descent and Ascent Powered-flight Testbed (ADAPT). The Curiosity rover’s targeted landing zone was a staggering 12x4 miles wide. With this new tech, researchers hope to cut those down from miles-wide zones to potentially hitting the sweet spot within a few yards. Not bad, right?
The system basically works by comparing fresh images of the area to pictures of the intended target. Once the system is able to find a match, it can remap the live data to pinpoint a landing to the predetermined area. According to NASA, the spacecraft can then use this information to correct its course to get as close to the targeted landing site as possible within its capability, and make a smooth, pinpoint landing. Even better? It doesn’t even need GPS.
"This represents a huge step forward in our future capabilities for safe and precise Mars landing, and demonstrates a highly effective approach for rapid, low-cost validation of new technologies for the entry, descent and landing of spacecraft," said Chad Edwards, chief technologist of the Mars Exploration Directorate at JPL. "This same technology has valuable applications to landing on the moon, asteroids and other space targets of interest.”
Though finding the right spot is obviously important, two tests of the new Mars Landing Technology have also utilized the G-FOLD algorithm, which was developed by JPL and the University of Texas at Austin. That system calculates the optimal path to divert a spacecraft to a target landing site in real time, which makes for maximum performance from every kilogram of propellant.
Along with an eventual Mars mission, NASA notes this tech could also be utilized for everything from asteroid landings to potential moon missions.