Safe, stable landing pads are essential for landing crew and cargo on pristine, remote regions of extraterrestrial surfaces. Hyper velocity surface debris, consisting of rocks and dust, raised by the exhaust plume of the main lander engine thrusters on pristine, unimproved terrain pose a hazard, not only to crew and exposed high value assets in the vicinity of the lander, but could also severely damage lander underbelly systems and components, especially making undercarriage elements, landing legs and exhaust nozzle or fuel tanks, vulnerable to damage from retro-debris impacts and ricochet effects.
Dust and debris effects were reported by crew during landing maneuvers. This “sand-blasting” phenomenon was conclusively verified during the Apollo 12 mission that touched down in the vicinity of the Surveyor 3 robotic lunar lander. The touchdown of the Apollo 12 landing module about 160 meters away sent an energetic spray of dust and debris flying across the lunar surface “sand-blasting” the side of the Surveyor 3 facing the landing module. It was observed that the spray of dust contained grains of sand of about 60 microns in length that traveled at hypersonic velocity, drilling through paint and fracturing the wall of the Surveyor craft.
Thrust levels of baseline reference lander propulsion systems impart forces on extraterrestrial terrain that easily exceed the regolith bearing capacity, rupturing and cratering the pristine unimproved surface and generating dangerous debris.
NASA has proposed projects to construct solid landing pads on the Moon to support multiple sorties to the same location, but this effort is directed toward building permanent structures and would require complex robotic operations.
The PocketPadTM concept proposes to eliminate the complexity and elaborate redundancies associated with such strategies by deploying a specially designed landing mat over unimproved lunar terrain just before lander touchdown.
A stowable, rapidly deployable landing pad will greatly decrease many of the risks associated with landing a spacecraft by providing a rapidly deployable landing pad that results in a smoother, dust free zone around the lander. Not only can this technique aid us on our Moon for primary lander missions in remote regions under low gravity and vacuum conditions, but this strategy could also be applied to any other extraterrestrial surface that is proposed to be explored.
As private and public companies express greater interest in extraterrestrial lander missions, we must establish new techniques to safely land on unimproved surfaces with minimum disturbance to exposed payloads and sensitive equipment in the proximity of the landing zone.
The PocketPadTM concept architecture will explore the viability of a cheap, disposable, one-time-use only, instantly deployable landing pad and offer advantages it can provide for a range of landing missions. Design requirements, alternate studies for deployment and merits and limitations as well as proposed future studies are presented.