NASA unveiled a technology test vehicle called the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a kind of flying saucer craft that will be launched into near space in June on April 9, 2014. The test will take place at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.
The method that planetary missions use to enter the atmosphere of a planet dates back to the Viking probes in the late 1970s. The most recent Mars rover, the Curiosity, landed a payload the size of a car using a combination of a heat shield, retrorockets, a parachute, and a curious “skycrane” contraption. NASA, which plans to land humans on Mars in the 2030s, is attempting to rethink how one lands on a celestial body with an atmosphere.
The LDSD is designed to test a variety of new technologies to slow large payloads as they enter the atmosphere of a planet such as Mars. It would use atmospheric drag for that purpose at supersonic speeds the better to safely land, say, a Mars Descent Vehicle with a crew safely on the Red Planet.
It is hoped that if the test in 2014 and one planned in 2015 are successful, the technology could be used on an actual mission as early in 2018.