In preparation for NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars, the space station has performed a successful test of a special parachute that’s designed to withstand the intense speeds involved during an atmospheric descent.
The test, called the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment, or ASPIRE, is a prelude to the real thing where NASA will use the supersonic parachute to land its next rover on the Red Planet. The space agency conducted its first test of the system on October 4, with the parachute deploying successfully at a mind-numbing speed of mach 1.8. So yeah, this isn’t just any ordinary parachute, as NASA’s new video makes clear.
For the test, a 58-foot-tall Black Brant IX sounding rocket was launched into the upper atmosphere from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility. It carried a weighted payload in a bullet-nosed cylindrical structure, along with the parachute, the deployment system, and instruments (including a high-def camera) to collect test data.
When the rocket ascended to an altitude of 32 miles (51 km), it began to fall back towards Earth. Some 40 seconds later, at a height of 26 miles (42 km) and at a falling speed of 1,370 miles per hour (2,200 km/h), the system’s onboard computers determined that the test conditions were met. A hundred pounds of nylon and Kevlar were shot from the rear of the vehicle at nearly a hundred miles an hour. The parachute deployed successfully, and without major rips or tangles. Some 35 minutes later, the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic ocean.
“It is quite a ride,” Ian Clark, the test’s technical lead from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “The imagery of our first parachute inflation is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant. 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.”
When this system is used in three years, the module containing the Mars 2020 rover will enter the atmosphere at over 12,000 miles per hour (20,000 km/h). Mars has lower gravity than Earth, plus a thinner atmosphere, so the conditions used during ASPIRE were not terribly far off from the real thing.
For this test, NASA scientists used a parachute very similar to the one used back in 2012 to delivery the Curiosity rover to Mars. But early next year, the space agency will test a strengthened version of the parachute that could be used in future Mars missions.