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NASA successfully tests new pinpoint landing tech

While people still argue whether or not Justin Bieber's work can be classified as music, NASA made a pinpoint rocket landing twice, opening up new possibilities for precise landings on Mars or, for that matter, any other planet anywhere.

Just to put things in perspective, the Curiosity rover which landed on the surface of Mars back in August 2012, targeted a landing zone the shape of an ellipse, measuring 20 by 7 kilometres (12 miles by 4 miles).

In collaboration with Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California, NASA recently tested new technologies on board a high-tech demonstration vehicle called the Autonomous Descent and Ascent Powered-flight Testbed (ADAPT).

ADAPT is built on the Masten XA-O.1B Xombie vertical launch, vertical landing reusable rocket. This rocket was chosen because it is able to provide a good approximation of Mars-like descent conditions with high-speed descent rates at low altitudes.

ADAPT had two successful test flights, one on 4 December 2014, and the second on 9 December. In both cases, the rocket reached a maximum altitude of 1,066 feet (325 meters) before beginning its descent.

"No previous Mars lander has used onboard surface imaging to achieve a safe and precise touchdown, but a future spacecraft could use LVS and G-FOLD to first autonomously determine its location and then optimally fly to its intended landing site," said Nikolas Trawny, ADAPT's principal investigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "All of this happens on board, without human intervention, and in real time."

In short, Xombie takes pictures of the landing site while going down, and then compares those images with the ones stored onboard, thus determining its position and where it should land.

The spacecraft can then use this information to correct its course to get as close to the targeted landing site as possible within its capability, and make a smooth, pinpoint landing.

Sead Fadilpašić

Sead is a freelance journalist with more than 15 years of experience in writing various types of content, from blogs, whitepapers, and reviews to ebooks, and many more, across sites including Al Jazeera Balkans, TechRadar Pro, IT Pro Portal, and CryptoNews.