Excitement is growing about the possibility of sending NASA astronauts to Mars, and now the space agency is testing a piece of technology that will be vital to the success of the mission.

The Red Planet has fascinated space watchers for years, and the possibility that the human race could set foot on it is growing slowly but surely. In a year that has seen interest in space exploration increase dramatically thanks to a raft of discoveries and NASA’s mastery of social media, clamor is growing to put humans on Mars.

NASA Testing Technology For Manned Mars Mission

Technology could be used to take humans to Mars

In order for a manned mission to Mars to be able to return safely to Earth, scientists have to work out how to make the spacecraft slow down once it has entered the Martian atmosphere. NASA has come up with what looks like a huge inflatable donut which will apparently do the job.

It is necessary to slow the spacecraft down to protect it from the heat generated by atmospheric entry and allow it to land more softly. Both factors are important in protecting the delicate scientific equipment which will be onboard.

NASA has revealed tentative plans for a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Using rocket technology available today it would take around 8 months to reach the Red Planet. The spacecraft which does eventually take on the long trip will be slowed down by the the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD).

NASA to test larger versions of HIAD

HIAD is being tested at the space agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, and works like a parachute. The inflatable orange ring uses the drag of a planet’s atmosphere to slow the spacecraft down, which will reduce the amount that it heats up and makes for a softer landing.

The HIAD is 9-feet in diameter and made from Zylon and Teflon materials. It is being tested using a vacuum pump and engineers check the module at regular intervals to see if it has been damaged. That successful test was recounted in a NASA blog post.

Now scientists will be working on larger HIAD that are able to deploy from rockets and withstand extremely high temperatures, like those likely to occur on a descent to Mars.

Before Mars, the International Space Station?

“All these tests build on each other to help demonstrate the performance of the system, and in the end, we’ll have a complete system that will be tested to show that it can meet the requirements for a space flight mission whether it’s going to be returning a vehicle to Earth or future Mars missions,” Keith Johnson, a lead engineer for the project said, according to NASA.

While a manned mission to Mars is still a fairly long time away from becoming a reality, NASA hopes to put HIAD technology to use in other areas. It is thought that the technology could be used to bring heavy pieces of equipment back down to Earth from the International Space Station.

It looks as though humans may soon be able to visit areas of space that were previously the preserve of science fiction. In fact movies such as The Martian have only added to the wave of excitement about breaking the next frontier of space. HIAD technology could provide a big step forward in that regard.