25May2018

Mars Parachute Successfully Completes First Test Run

ExoMars 2020 parachute deployment sequence. Image Credit: ESA

It seems like everyone has their eyes on Mars these days and is trying to figure out how to get there. One question many people seem to be overlooking, however, isn’t how we get to the Red Planet.

The question is how we land once we get there! Powered rocket landing, similar to how the Falcon 9 first stage engines land, could be an option once we have humans on Mars, but for now, parachutes seem to be the best option. That is, the option that Europe’s ExoMars program has chosen to go with — and their biggest parachute ever just passed its first test run.

ExoMars and the ESA

ExoMars is an astrobiology project that’s being run by both the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Its goal is to find evidence of past life on Mars by examining the atmosphere of the planet as well as the surface.

The first ExoMars project launched in 2016 — a satellite that is now in a Low Mars Orbit, allowing it to sample the atmosphere and look for traces of methane. Methane could signify either biological or geological activity on the red planet.

Mars’ thin atmosphere allows cosmic rays to break apart individual atoms, releasing high energy neutrons into the atmosphere. The way these neutrons interact with the Martian environment enables scientists to create a map of where different elements could be found on the red planet.

This first launch also carried an experimental rover, which crashed when it attempted to land on the planet’s surface. The parachute landing system wasn’t equipped for the supersonic landings that occur on Mars due to the planet’s thin atmosphere. This failure wasn’t all bad — it allowed the researchers to collect landing information that could be used to safely carry down the next rover when it reaches Mars sometime in 2021.

Biggest Mars Parachute Ever

The parachute that’s going to carry the 2020 ExoMars rover down to the surface of the red planet is the biggest one ever made. The parachute itself is 115 feet across and weighs a whopping 200 pounds. It’s attached to the landing rover with 112 lines that, if placed end to end, would reach three miles.

Folding a parachute usually takes 10 to 20 minutes if you’re familiar with how it’s supposed to be folded. This massive parachute takes five days to fold into the proper configuration to allow for safe landing.

The first test wasn’t representative of the thin conditions of Mars’ atmosphere. Instead, it was designed to simply test whether or not the parachute would open and descend correctly. At its 4,000-foot drop height, the parachute passed with flying colors.

The next test will be a high-altitude one, which will try the parachute’s capabilities in thin atmospheric conditions, like those that it will encounter on Mars.

Chutes Within Chutes

The massive 115-foot parachute isn’t the only one that will be included in the final design. The system starts with a small pilot chute, which triggers a 49-foot supersonic parachute. Once the descent speed has slowed to subsonic, a second pilot chute will trigger the 115-foot parachute.

It won’t be alone though. The ExoMars rover will weigh roughly 4,400 pounds, so it will require two of these enormous canopies to descend safely to the Martian surface.

 

The ExoMars rover is due to launch sometime in 2020 and should reach orbit around Mars sometime in 2021. In the meantime, ExoMars has their work cut out for them with high altitude tests as well as full weight tests to ensure that the parachute system will be able to safely carry their second rover down to the Martian surface so that they don’t have a repeat of the 2016 crash.

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Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Associate Editor of Astro Space News

Megan is also a freelance science writer & the Editor of Schooled By Science.

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