NASA Tests Supersonic Parachute For Mars 2020 Rover Landing

A 58-foot-tall (17.7-meter) Black Brant IX sounding rocket launches from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Oct. 4 to test the new parachute for the Mars 2020 lander. Credit: NASA/Wallops

Landing on Mars is difficult and not always successful. A fair number of missions to the Martian surface have failed, even some launched by the U.S. But we’ve been on something of a roll since 2003 with four consecutive successes: the Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity all landed safe and sound.

Tingly-good animation of Curiosity landing on Mars in August 2012

Well-designed advance testing helps. The next NASA Mars rover mission set to launch in 2020 will rely on a special parachute to slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph (5.4 km/sec). Who could forget the multi-stepped, sky-crane landing of the Curiosity rover back in August 2012? Watching the video still gives me goosebumps.

The Mars 2020 mission will investigate a region of Mars that may have been favorable for microbial life. Science instruments on the rover will search the rocks for signs of past life, place the samples in tubes and then cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

Full-scale models of three generations of NASA Mars rovers show the increase in size from the Sojourner rover of the Mars Pathfinder project that landed on Mars in 1997 (center), to the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 (left), to the Curiosity rover (right) that landed in 2012. Credit: NASA

As rovers have gotten heavier and heavier over the years, NASA has had to devise new strategies for landing them safely. We’ve seen everything from parachutes to air bags to a sky crane. About the size of an SUV, the nuclear-powered Mars 2020 rover weighs 2,314 pounds (1,050 kg), making for the heaviest landing package yet. The mission’s parachute-testing series, the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment, or ASPIRE, began with a rocket launch and test flight last month from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

A quick animation showing how the Mars 2020 rover will land on Mars using parachute and sky crane. Credit: NASA

“It is quite a ride,” said Ian Clark, the test’s technical lead from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “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.”

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

The rocket carried the payload as high as about 32 miles (51 km). Forty-two seconds later, at an altitude of 26 miles (42 km) and a velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound, the test conditions were met and the Mars parachute successfully deployed.

Parachute and payload land in the ocean after a successful test in October. Credit: NASA

“Everything went according to plan or better than planned,” said Clark. “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.”

The parachute tested during this first flight was almost an exact copy of the parachute used to land the Curiosity rover successfully on the Red Planet in 2012. The Mars 2020 team will use data from these tests to finalize the design; the next test is planned for Feb. 2018. The new parachute will be paired with a sky crane and lower the Mars 2020 rover to the surface in the same manner as Curiosity.

Mars 2020’s planned launch is July 2020 with a landing the following February. Here’s a mission overview and timeline.  And guess what? This time the rover will carry a microphone that will be used to record the landing as well as sounds while driving and collecting samples. Bonus!