A joint venture between the ESA and Roscosmos to place a rover and science platform on Mars has hit a stumbling block, with the parachutes needed to safely lower the ExoMars 2020 module to the surface receiving damage during the latest round of testing. This follows another less-than-successful test earlier in the year, with the team now searching for answers less than year out from the scheduled launch.
The ExoMars 2020 mission involves the ESA-built rover that will roam the surface for organic material and the Russian-built stationary surface platform, which will spend a year investigating the soil at the landing site. Both will lift off atop a Proton rocket and travel to the Red Planet inside a carrier module over a nine-month journey, before entering the atmosphere, deploying parachutes and firing braking engines in an attempt to reduce their velocity for a safe touchdown.
This process actually involves a set of two parachutes, each with their own pilot chutes, deploying in a sequence during the six hours between atmospheric entry and landing. The first-stage parachute has a 15-meter (50-ft) diameter and a larger, second-stage parachute has a 35-meter (115-ft) diameter, which will actually be the largest to ever descend to Mars.
Back in May, mission scientists tried out all four parachutes for the first time, releasing them from a stratospheric helium balloon at an altitude of 29 km (18 mi). All of the chutes deployed correctly, but the team found both of the main parachutes suffered damage on the way down.
So the team made some alterations to the design and then conducted another run, this time focusing their attention on the larger main parachute. But the second test brought damage to the canopy in a similar fashion to the first one, with an attached mock carrier module left to fall to Earth with only the pilot chute to slow it down.
"It is disappointing that the precautionary design adaptations introduced following the anomalies of the last test have not helped us to pass the second test successfully, but as always we remain focused and are working to understand and correct the flaw in order to launch next year," says Francois Spoto, ESA's ExoMars Team Leader.
The team is now working through videos and hardware data recorded throughout the test to determine its next moves. Another high-altitude test is planned for the main parachute later in the year, and another for early 2020 ahead of launch in late-July early-August.
"Getting to Mars and in particular landing on Mars is very difficult," says Spoto. "We are committed to flying a system that will safely deliver our payload to the surface of the Mars in order to conduct its unique science mission."
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