Last month, NASA took another step towards the Red Planet with a test of its supersonic parachute, designed to slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph. A dramatic video on board the test flight captured the parachute opening flawlessly at nearly twice the speed of sound.
“It is quite a ride! The imagery of our first parachute inflation is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant,” said Ian Clark of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “For the first time, we get to see what it would look like to be in a spacecraft hurtling towards the Red Planet, unfurling its parachute.”
An earlier parachute test resulted in a failure, with the parachute shredding soon after deployment.
The first phase of the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) was launched aboard a Black Brant IX rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia. After reaching a height of 32 miles, the payload capsule began to plummet back to Earth. Once it reached a speed of Mach 1.8 at an altitude of 26 miles, the Mars parachute deployed successfully. The ASPIRE splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 35 minutes after liftoff
The test parachute was almost identical to the one used to land NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of the red planet in 2012. “Everything went according to plan or better than planned,” said Clark. The next ASPIRE test is planned for February of 2018. “We not only proved that we could get our payload to the correct altitude and velocity conditions to best mimic a parachute deployment in the Martian atmosphere, but as an added bonus, we got to see our parachute in action as well.”
In addition to the parachute, the Mars mission’s landing system includes a descent vehicle and a tricky procedure known as a “skycrane maneuver,” which lowers the rover on a cable to the surface.
The Mars 2020 rover will look for signs of ancient Martian life by drilling for core samples that may contain evidence of past microbial life and “cache” them for collection during a possible future mission. It will also test different methods of producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.
After launching during the summer of 2020, when the two planets are relatively close to each other, the rover is scheduled to set down on the surface of Mars in February 2021.