NASA Tests Supersonic Parachute for Mars 2020 Rover
The Mars 2020 rover project is in full swing at NASA, and the agency has chosen to base the new rover on the phenomenally successful Curiosity design. That means the rover needs to slow down in the Martian atmosphere before engaging its rocket-based landing system. NASA has just completed the first real-world test of the supersonic parachute that’ll help the rover do that.
When the 2020 rover enters Mars’ atmosphere, it’ll be moving at over 12,000 mph (5.4 kilometers per second), and it’ll weigh around 2,000 pounds like curiosity. You need a big parachute to slow something like that down, and the problem is much more complex on Mars. Earth’s atmosphere is much denser than Mars, so the parachute needs to be extra large to produce enough drag. Lower atmospheric pressure also changes the way parachutes deploy, and that was the focus of the first test.
Earth isn’t Mars, but there are still ways to test parts of the 2020 mission in the real world. The behavior of the chute can be tested at high altitudes where pressure is lower. These tests are now underway in a program known as the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE). In the just-completed first trial, a small Black Brant IX rocket was launched from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket reached Mach three as it ascended to an altitude of about 31 miles (50 kilometers), where the first stage dropped off.
The only payload for this launch was the parachute, which was triggered as the rocket’s second stage began dipping back down into the atmosphere. The mechanism activated when it reached an altitude of 26 miles. Atmospheric density there is similar to Mars, so it’s a better test of the supersonic parachute.
The 100-pound parachute fired from the rocket at nearly 100 miles per hour. The rocket was still moving at 1.8 times the speed of sound (about 1,300 mph) as the parachute fully deployed, generating more than 35,000 pounds of drag force. A high-speed camera filmed the whole thing at 1,000 frames per second. You can see that footage slowed down at the end of the video above. The rocket splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean a mere 35 minutes after launch where NASA recovered it.
NASA engineers will go over the ASPIRE footage frame-by-frame to study how the parachute behaved during deployment. This design is similar to the parachute used for the Curiosity landing in 2012, but NASA plans to develop an even stronger version of this parachute. That eventual system will become part of the final 2020 mission design.