While the Curiosity rover continues to explore the Red Planet, NASA is gearing up to launch its successor. The Mars 2020 mission is well into the testing phase, and now the organization has successfully conducted the first test of a supersonic parachute that will (hopefully) allow the craft to safely touchdown on Mars in early 2021.

The first flight of the parachute test series, which NASA calls the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE), launched last month from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. The parachute used was almost exactly the same as the one that delivered Curiosity to the Martian surface in 2012, but a stronger version will be tested in later experiments, and data from the whole run will be used to finalize the design of the Mars 2020 parachute.

On October 4, a 58-ft (17.7-m) Black Brant IX rocket was launched, carrying a payload that included the parachute, its deployment mechanism, and a suite of data-gathering instruments, including cameras. The parachute deployed 42 seconds after launch while at an altitude of 26 miles (42 km) and traveling at a velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound. The test was successful and 35 minutes after launch, the payload splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean, about 34 miles (54 km) away from the launchpad.

"Everything went according to plan or better than planned," says Ian Clark, technical lead for the project. "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."

NASA has released the following video of the test, which gives a rover's-eye view of the launch, deployment and landing. The next ASPIRE test is scheduled for February next year and, if all goes as planned, the mission will launch in July 2020.

Source: JPL NASA