How to Land on Mars: Martian Tech Explained (Infographic)
Spacecraft use multiple methods to slow down enough for a safe landing on Mars.
Credit: By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

To land on a planet, one must slow down from orbital speed (tens of thousands of miles per hour), to a standstill on the surface. Re-entry friction with Earth's thick atmosphere reduces a spacecraft‘s speed enough for parachutes to provide a gentle descent. On the moon, which has no atmosphere, rockets are used all the way down to ensure a soft landing. Mars' very thin atmosphere cannot provide enough resistance to slow a spacecraft to a safe landing speed with just a heat shield and parachute. 

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These are some methods that have been used, usually in combination, to land vehicles on Mars:

Aeroshell –Fragile probes are encased in a heatproof shell for entry into the Mars atmosphere. Curiosity’s 14.8-foot (4.5 meters) shell was the largest yet.

Parachutes –Once past the high temperatures of atmospheric entry, parachutes are deployed to reduce speed.

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Rockets –Near the ground, rocket engines can be fired to slow the probe to a gentle touchdown.

Airbags –The Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions used a unique cluster of airbags to bounce to a soft landing.

Sky craneCuriosity used an innovative rocket platform to lower the rover to the surface on cables, then fly away safely.

At 1 ton (907 kilograms), Curiosity is the largest spacecraft yet landed on Mars. To land larger payloads, engineers are developing the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD). 

The 28-foot (8 m) SIAD includes an inflatable section to increase drag during re-entry. The decelerator was first tested on a rocket sled, and next will be tested at high altitude in Earth's atmosphere.

Eventually, versions of the decelerator could land multi-ton payloads on Mars' surface, which is a requirement for manned landings.

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