Published : Wednesday, January 17, 2018 | 6:51 AM
For the first time, NASA tested the parachute system that will deliver the next Mars rover mission when it launches in 2020.
With a team on hand from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena that manages the Mars 2020 project’s parachute-testing series ASPIRE (Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment), NASA’s test began with a rocket launch and upper-atmosphere flight last month from the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.
“It is quite a ride,” Ian Clark, the test’s technical lead from JPL, said. “The imagery of our first parachute inflation is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant. 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.”
A 58-foot-tall Black Brant IX sounding rocket was launched from Wallops on October 4 for this evaluation of the ASPIRE payload performance. The payload is a bullet-nosed, cylindrical structure holding a supersonic parachute, the chute’s deployment mechanism, and the test’s high-definition instrumentation, including cameras to record data.
The rocket carried the payload as high as about 32 miles. Forty-two seconds later, at an altitude of 26 miles and a velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound, the test conditions were met and the Mars parachute successfully deployed. Thirty-five minutes after launch, ASPIRE splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 34 miles southeast of Wallops Island.
“Everything went according to plan or better than planned,” said Clark. “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.”
The parachute tested during this first flight was almost an exact copy of the chute used to land NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory successfully on the Red Planet in 2012. Future tests will evaluate the performance of a strengthened parachute that could also be used in future Mars missions. The Mars 2020 team will use data from these tests to finalize the design for its mission.
NASA’s Mars rover mission will rely on the special parachute to slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph.
NASA plans to hold the next ASPIRE test in February 2018.
JPL in Pasadena manages ASPIRE, with support from NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, and NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California, for NASA’s Space Science Mission Directorate.
NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program is based at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility. Orbital ATK provides mission planning, engineering services, and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding-rocket program for the agency.