The inflatable decelerators, also known as ballutes, and big parachutes would help the spacecraft reduce its speed through the Martian atmosphere, while the atomic clocks would improve its landing accuracy.
1970 Viking chutes were 69 feet (21 meters) wide and are still being used. The 2018 or 2020 mission would employ a 98-foot-wide (30 m) chute with a design that produces far more drag.
NASA has yet to decide if it will send a rover, lander or orbiter to Mars later this decade, and its decision will be guided by its long-term goals of a Martian sample-return mission and a human flight to the Red Planet, officials have said.
NASA’s next Mars mission, MAVEN (for Mars Atmosphere Volatile Evolution), involves an atmosphere-analyzing orbiter slated to arrive in 2015. If the 2018 or 2020 mission is another orbiter, it could use new laser communications systems.
Curiosity is to be lowered to the Martian surface on cables by a rocket-powered sky crane. Such a system could be used to enable human missions to the Red Planet, McCuistion said.
A sky crane in combination with a surface beacon could deliver 2,200 pounds (1,100 kilograms) of cargo to within a few hundred yards of a target location, he said.
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