NASA's Mars 2020 mission has passed a major milestone with the supersonic parachute that will deliver it to the surface of the Red Planet breaking a world record. As part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) project, the experimental parachute was launched by a sounding rocket into the upper reaches of the stratosphere, where it deployed to full inflation in less than 0.4 seconds – a record for a parachute that size.
At dawn on September 7, 2018, a 58-ft-tall (17.7-m) Black Brant IX sounding rocket delivered a test payload to an altitude of 125,000 ft (38,000 m) and a speed of Mach 1.8 (1,335 mph, 2,148 km/h) in less than two minutes. After release from the booster, the onboard computer deployed the 180-lb (397-lb) parachute. As it opened, it experienced forces of up to 70,000 lb (32,000 kg), which is 85 percent greater than what the unmanned Mars 2020 lander is likely to encounter.
The parachute is one of two being tested by NASA for the Mars mission and the space agency says the one used in the September test is an almost exact duplicate of the one that will fly in 2020. Made of nylon, Technora, and Kevlar fibers, it was tested at such high altitude because the air density at about 23 mi (37 km) is very similar to that of Mars at an altitude of 6 mi (10 km), where the parachute is designed to deploy at above the speed of sound during entry to slow the spacecraft down to landing speed.
"Mars 2020 will be carrying the heaviest payload yet to the surface of Mars, and like all our prior Mars missions, we only have one parachute and it has to work," says John McNamee, project manager of Mars 2020 at JPL. "The ASPIRE tests have shown in remarkable detail how our parachute will react when it is first deployed into a supersonic flow high above Mars. And let me tell you, it looks beautiful."
NASA says that with the completion of the high-altitude tests, work on the parachute will continue in the lower reaches of the stratosphere before Mars 2020 lifts off in 28 months.
The video below discusses the supersonic parachute test.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more