An illustration of SHIELD. California Academy of Sciences.

Meet SHIELD; NASA’s New Idea to Safely Crash-Land on Mars

Experimental landers like SHIELD use a collapsible, accordion-like base to absorb impact energy instead of slowing the spacecraft's descent. SHIELD stands for Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device, not the Marvel division)


Using a new landing form modeled after a car crumple zone, NASA is working on cutting costs for sending missions to Mars. Landing on a planet is anything but easy. In fact, it is so challenging that, to this date, only the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China have done it. The trip to Mars is already a problem. However, getting there is something we have become better and better at. However, managing a successful soft landing on the red planet’s surface is a whole different ballgame. If the vehicle survives entry through Mars’ atmosphere, the tricky part is landing the vehicle without it crashing on the surface. Yes, Mars does have an atmosphere.

Using cutting-edge parachutes, massive airbags, and jetpacks, NASA has successfully touched down on Mars nine times. But what if we let our spacecraft crash on Mars and survive the crash? Doesn’t it sound logical, does it? As a matter of fact, NASA engineers are testing whether crashing on Mars is the easiest way to reach its surface. Experimental landers like SHIELD use a collapsible, accordion-like base to absorb impact energy instead of slowing the spacecraft’s descent. SHIELD stands for Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device, not the Marvel division)


Crashing with SHIELD

A new landing design on Mars would simplify the harrowing entry, descent, and landing processes This allows a larger variety of landing sites. It also reduces landing costs. NASA’s Mars Sample Return campaign heavily influenced SHIELD’s design. An airtight metal tube will be used to collect rock samples by the Perseverance rover. Then, a capsule will carry the samples back to Earth and safely crash land. The study of that process led engineers to wonder if the idea is reversible, said Velibor Dormarkovi, a JPL SHIELD team member.


He said. “Why can’t you land something on Mars hard if you want to land something on Earth hard?” If we’re able to do a hard landing on Mars, SHIELD will likely be able to land on planets and moons with denser atmospheres as well. It was necessary for engineers to test SHIELD’s ability to protect sensitive electronics during landing in order to prove the theory. Tests were conducted at JPL using a drop tower. The goal was to determine how Perseverance’s sample tubes would fare in a hard Earth landing. With a height of nearly 90 feet (27 meters), it can throw an object up to the surface at the same speed as a Mars landing. This giant sling is called a bow launch system.

The test

Now that the idea was there, it was time to test it, and they did so in August 2022. The SHIELD team assembled an inverted pyramid of metal rings designed to absorb impact at the drop tower. To simulate the electronics on a spacecraft, the attenuator was mounted on a grapple with a smartphone, a radio, and an accelerometer on the inside. Would these objects survive the crash? Almost immediately, SHIELD was launched at roughly 110 mph (177 kph) by its bow launcher. A Mars lander reaches that speed near the surface after entering the Mars atmosphere. This is after it is being slowed by atmospheric drag from its starting speed of 14,500 miles per hour (23,335 kilometers per hour).

Additionally, this test uses a steel plate 2 inches (5 centimeters) thick to simulate landing on Mars. This is a harder landing harder than a spacecraft would experience on Earth. Previous SHIELD tests used dirt as a ground landing zone. According to the accelerometer onboard SHIELD, it was impacted with a force of about 1 million newtons. This is equivalent to 112 tons smashing into it. Also, observations from a high-speed camera show SHIELD impact at an angle. It bounced 3.5 feet (1 meter) into the air and flipped over. In earlier tests, no bounce was observed. The team suspects the steel plate was the culprit. The onboard devices, including the smartphone, survived when the team opened the prototype and retrieved the simulated electronic payload. The mission was successful, and a new door opened to landing spacecraft on Mars.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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