Watch the first video of a supersonic parachute test for NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission

Supersonic Parachute Image
Image: NASA

The Mars 2020 Mission is NASA’s most ambitious rover project to date. Among other things, the rover will be able to drill into the Martian surface and store the collected samples for later recovery. This mission will give us more insight into the Red Planet and its potential to harbor life. Of course, all of this is only possible if the rover can land on Mars in the first place.

Traveling at over 12,000 mph upon entering the Martian atmosphere, slowing down the spacecraft carrying the payload is critical to the mission’s success. For the first time, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has released a video of them testing a supersonic parachute that may be up to this challenge.

The test took place last month in Virginia at the Wallops Flight Facility, a launch area that is part of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. It started by launching a 58-foot sounding rocket 32 miles into the air. The rocket was carrying a capsule that contained the supersonic parachute and its launching mechanism.

After detaching from the rocket, the capsule began its descent back towards Earth reaching a peak velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound or 1,300 mph. At 26 miles above our planet, the supersonic parachute was deployed causing rapid deceleration of the payload and generating about 35,000 pounds of drag force. After about half an hour the capsule successfully landed in the Atlantic Ocean.

This test marked the first experiment of the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE), a series of tests designed to develop strengthened landing parachutes for the Mars 2020 Mission.

While the test was successful, the parachute used was nearly identical to the one used on previous Mars missions. Future experiments, however, using next-generation parachutes are already planned for early 2018. The development of stronger supersonic parachutes could open up new possibilities for the Mars 2020 Mission and beyond by allowing the delivery of heavier payloads.

In the meantime, the video provides a thrilling look at where the technology currently stands and simulates how experiments like the Curiosity rover would have landed on Mars. “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,” says Ian Clark, technical lead for the experiment. So click play, sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.





Author: Skylar Knight

Skylar is currently in the MSc Science Communication program at Imperial College London. He has years of experience working in science museums, academic publishing, writing, filmmaking, and science education.