Flying people to Mars won’t be easy. They’ll have to fly on a 3-year, 60-million mile trip to the right place, and then land on the ground safely. With the air so thin on Mars, you can’t land a spacecraft like you would an airplane. You need a giant parachute to let the spacecraft and astronauts fall slowly to the ground. Parachutes worked fine back in 1976 for the Viking landers, and just as well for the cute Mars rovers in 2004 and Curiosity in 2012. But landing people is a whole other story. The spacecraft will be much heaver, so they’ll need a much bigger parachute, a whole 110 feet wide! And that’s too big to test in NASA’s wind tunnels. So NASA is using Earth as their “pretend” Mars. Our atmosphere, or layer of air around Earth, gets much thinner as you fly higher. So in the next couple of weeks NASA will launch a flying-saucer shaped vehicle over the Pacific Ocean, and drop a giant parachute from 34 miles above the water. Regular planes fly at only about 7 miles! Who needs to go to Mars – just riding this parachute could be pretty exciting.
Wee ones: If you left for Mars now and arrived 3 years from now, how old would you be?
Little kids: If you flew for 3 years to Mars, stayed 2 years and then came back, how many years would your whole trip take? Bonus: In what year would you be back on Earth if you left today? (Reminder: we’re in 2014 right now…you can try counting up to get the answer!)
Big kids: The flying saucer flew 34 miles up – by comparison, airplanes that you might fly reach about 7 miles. How much higher would you get to fly if you rode this saucer? Bonus: The new parachute is 110 feet wide, double the width of Curiosity’s parachute. How wide was Curiosity’s parachute?
Wee ones: Different for everyone…add 3 years to your age today!
Little kids: 8 years. Bonus: In 2022.
Big kids: 27 miles higher. Bonus: 55 feet wide – already wider than most houses.