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The Largest Parachute Ever Built for Mars Triumphs in its First Test

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Posted May 24, 2018

The flights into space become commonplace nowadays. Since Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched the Falcon Heavy and Max Polyakov’s Firefly Aerospace continued creating the world’s most economical light satellite launch vehicles, many aerospace companies have started enhancing their space presence. In the meantime, the biggest parachute ever designed for a Mars landing has passed it’s initial test in Sweden with flying colours, bringing the European ExoMars rover mission for 2021 one step closer to completion.

A prototype for a giant 115-foot (35 meters) parachute for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover has passed its first drop test from a helicopter. Image credit: Credit: I.Barel/ESA

The parachute uses a ring-slot design with a radius of 35 meters, weighs in at nearly 90 kg and bears cords 5 kilometers long. According to the European Space Agency that’s leading the ExoMars mission, it requires five days to ready the parachute and fold it to specification for landing.

The test saw a helicopter carry a prototype landing module weighing 500 kilograms to a height of roughly 1.2 kilometers up in the air, whereupon it released the module. Following a free fall of approximately 12 seconds, the parachute deployment sequence was triggered: first, a smaller pilot chute measuring 4.8 metres opened, with the main chute opening afterwards. 112 lines connected the parachute to the landing module.

Flights of Fancy

The test aimed to demonstrate the way the parachute would extract itself from containment and whether it would inflate successfully. The goal was not to see how the parachute would function in an atmosphere similar to Mars.

There are plans for next year to drop the parachute from a height that would correspond with the atmospheric conditions on the red planet. A series of GoPro cameras were fixed to the module to record the outcome of the test, and engineers were harvesting telemetry data throughout the launch that will inform the next stages of testing in the future.

Martian Landings in Sweden

Thierry Blancquaert, the project manager behind the ExoMars mission, said that the test’s success marked a “major milestone”. John Underwood, chief engineer at the UK firm of Vorticity and the man in charge of developing the parachute, announced that the following test would involve the use of a helium balloon to carry the module 28 kilometers up in the air, an altitude similarly thin to that of the one on Mars.

At that height, engineers can test the entire deployment sequence comprising of two parachutes to help safely land the 2,000 kg landing module. The 15m pilot chute will deploy whilst the module is moving at supersonic speed. Once the craft’s descent rate has fallen to subsonic, the main 35m ring-slot chute will be released.

Life on Mars

It’s another exciting step towards completion for the ExoMars project, due for launch in July 2020 with an expected time of landing on Mars sometime in March 2021. Once landed, the ExoMars rover vehicle will employ a 2m-long drill to probe the surface of the planet and attempt to find signs of Martian life.

The prevailing attitudes in the scientific community suggest that if Mars ever held life, any surviving evidence is probably buried underneath the surface crust of the planet, where it would be shielded from the effects of extreme surface conditions and solar radiation. As well as the parachute deployment system, the module will also be equipped with an aero-breaking heat shield, breaking thrusters and damping system to help ensure the best chances of the module landing safely on the planet.

Written by Anabel Cooper

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