Landing a robot on Mars is a fine art, and not every Martian surface mission pulls it off (rest in pieces, Schiaparelli probe). That’s why NASA is already rehearsing the landing sequence for the agency’s next major adventure to the Red Planet—the Mars 2020 rover, named for the year it is scheduled for launch.
The above video, newly released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), captures the first flight test of the rover’s supersonic parachute, which took place on October 4 at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Called the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE), the system is designed slam the brakes on the Mars 2020 spacecraft’s interplanetary cruising speed of 12,000 miles (19,312 kilometers) per hour when it reaches Mars in 2021 after about eight months of spaceflight.
To feel out its capabilities, the ASPIRE system was packed into a purple-striped case, and launched onboard a 58-foot tall suborbital sounding rocket. A few minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of 32 miles, the payload separated and began to fall back to Earth. After a six mile drop, which accelerated the system to around 1.8 times the speed of sound (1,300 miles per hour), the parachute successfully deployed.
NASA captured the striking unfurling of the chute by mounting a camera on the test capsule, which safely splashed down in the Atlantic about a half-hour after the October 4 launch.
ASPIRE will have to withstand future flight tests before it will be ready to play its part in the Mars 2020 rover’s landing, with a second experimental launch already scheduled for February 2018. Parachute failures are an extremely common cause of spacecraft fatalities, so the pressure is on, especially given the $2 billion price tag on the mission.
But if all goes well, and the Mars 2020 rover joins its robotic compatriots on the Red Planet intact, space nerds can expect an exciting haul of cool new discoveries. The next-generation rover, which will land in one of these three shortlisted sites, will be equipped with a drill for collecting core samples that might shed more light on Mars’ past habitability. The mission will also scout out techniques for onsite resource use, such as water and oxygen generation, to help pave the way for human exploration of the Martian surface.
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