Mars is inching closer and closer to Earth this month -- really close.
In fact, the red planet and Earth will be the closest they'll be until 2016 as their separate, elliptical orbits around the sun draw near to each other in an event called the Mars opposition. On April 14, the planets will be only 92 million kilometers apart or a short six-month flight for NASA's fastest rockets.
But for NASA scientists, that's not close enough.
It's been ten years since rovers first landed on Mars and scientists have been working towards getting humans there ever since.
Now, with the development of a new landing system called Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), humans are one step closer to landing -- not crashing -- on Mars. Robert Braun, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, told New Scientist that the technology is a "game-changer."
"Think about it like a bridge for humans to Mars," he said. "This is the next step in a sequence of technologies that would need to be developed."
And according to NASA, the technology lays the groundwork for "more complex human science expeditions to come."
NASA is currently developing three different devices that use atmospheric drag and deploy at supersonic speeds: two inflatable aerodynamic decelerators -- "very large, durable, balloon-like pressure vessels that inflate around the entry vehicle to slow it down" -- and one 100-foot diameter parachute, which looks like every skydiver's fantasy.
Taken together, LDSD could double NASA's payload capacity, open up new altitudes for landings and increase landing accuracy. Sounds impressive.
A "rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle" will be launched 34 miles into the atmosphere from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. If all goes smoothly, the device will land softly somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
"It may seem obvious," Allen Chen, a systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told New Scientist, "but the difference between landing and crashing is stopping."