Shortly before I visit, the team had been testing a new way of landing on Mars – a system that might be suitable for a human expedition to the red planet.
A soft landing on the surface of Mars is notoriously difficult to achieve. Unlike approaching the Earth in a spacecraft, the thin Martian atmosphere does little to slow you down. Engineers have successfully overcome this problem in the past by, for example, using airbags to cushion the blow or, most recently, the Sky Crane concept that lowered the Curiosity rover from a platform slowed by thrusters.
The latest idea is to have a spacecraft fitted with an inflatable ring that expands the area of the capsule exposed to the atmosphere, thereby increasing drag and slowing it down. “This concept – if it pans out – would be a potential way to land larger payloads, even bigger than the Curiosity rover, with precision and without having to take a tonne of fuel along to slow it down,” explains my guide. “Imagine you’ve got an inner tube around you and you’re entering an atmosphere, that’s not a vehicle configuration we’ve flown before.”
So does it work?
“It shows a lot of promise,” says Cornelison, quick on the draw.