Watch: NASA test its Supersonic Parachute for Mars 2020 mission

Nov. 22, 2017, 9:47 a.m. By: Kirti

Supersonic Parachute

The project of the Mars rover mission that is set to get launched in 2020 and that "will seek signs of ancient Martian life by investigating evidence in place and by catching drilled samples of Martian rocks for potential future return to Earth, according to NASA", as reported by the Xinhua news agency is currently in full swing at NASA, as the agency has now chosen to base its very new rover on the successful Curiosity design that is phenomenal in itself. That simply means that before engaging its rocket-based landing system the rover needs to slow down in the Martian atmosphere. NASA has also just completed its first real-world test of the supersonic parachute at 6:45 a.m. on October 4 at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia that’ll help the rover in doing just that.

The 2020 rover will be moving at over 12,000 mph that is, 5.4 kilometers per second, and it’ll weigh around 2,000 pounds like curiosity when it enters Mars’ atmosphere. And the problem is much more complex on Mars as you need a big parachute to slow something massive like that down. The parachute will also need to be extra large in order to produce enough drag as the atmosphere of the Earth is much denser than Mars as the Lower atmospheric pressure will also change the way of the deployment of the parachutes, and that was the focus of the first test that was conducted.

"It is quite a ride as the imagery is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant when it comes to our first parachute inflation. It is for the first time that we get to see what it would actually look like to be in a spacecraft unfurling its parachute and hurtling towards the Red Planet." said, the test's technical lead from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Ian Clark.

We all know that Earth isn’t Mars, but there are always new ways to test the parts of the 2020 rover mission in the real world still as at high altitudes where the pressure is lower the behavior of the chute can still be tested. These tests, in a program known as the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) are now underway. In the first trial that has been just-completed, a small rocket was launched from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia known as the Black Brant IX. The rocket as it ascended to an altitude of about 31 miles that is 50 kilometers, reached Mach three where the first stage dropped off.

The parachute was the only payload for this launch which was triggered as the rocket began dipping back down into the atmosphere in its second stage. The mechanism when it reached an altitude of 26 miles got activated. Since the density of the atmosphere, there is similar to that of Mars, so it’s a better test the supersonic parachute first.

"Everything went according to plan or better than planned, We not only proved that we could get our payload to the correct altitude and velocity conditions of the deployment of a parachute in the Martian atmosphere, to be mimicked the best but as a bonus that is added, we also got to see our parachute in action as well," said Clark.

The parachute that weighed 100-pound was fired from the rocket at nearly about 100 miles per hour. The rocket was still moving at 1.8 times the speed of sound that is about 1,300 mph as the parachute got fully deployed, in return generating more than a drag force of 35,000 pounds. A high-speed camera at 1,000 frames per second filmed the whole scene that took place. The rocket then got splashed down at a mere 35 minutes after launch where NASA recovered it in the Atlantic Ocean.

NASA engineers will go frame-by-frame over the ASPIRE footage to study how the parachute behaved during its first deployment as the data obtained during these tests will be critical for the better understanding of the dynamics and environment of a supersonic parachute inflation at Mars. NASA plans in the development of an even stronger version of this parachute even though this design is similar to the parachute used for the Curiosity landing in the year 2012. That eventual system will also soon become part of the final mission design of the 2020 rover.

This was the first of several tests that will be conducted in the support of NASA's Mars 2020 mission. The next test of ASPIRE is planned for February 2018 as only these future tests will evaluate the performance of a strengthened parachute that could also be used in the Mars missions that will take place in the future.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute: Test Flight #1

Video Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory