On October 4, 2017, NASA has tested Mars 2020’s supersonic parachute, which will slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph (around 19500 km/h, or 5.4 kilometers per second). Mars 2020 is a Mars rover mission by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. The planned launch will be, as the mission’s name suggests, in 2020. The mission will seek signs of ancient Martian life by investigating evidence in place and by caching drilled samples of Martian rocks for a potential future return to Earth.

The video below, published by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and titled “NASA’s Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute: Test Flight #1” shows an onboard view of the test flight.

The first flight of an advanced supersonic parachute system for Mars 2020-NASA’s next Mars rover.

This video is narrated by Ian Clark, the test’s technical lead from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The test took place on October 4, 2017, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia. At the moment of full inflation, the parachute was going 1.8 times the speed of sound or nearly 1,300 miles an hour (almost 2100 km/h or 583 meters per hour), and generating nearly 35,000 pounds (155687.76 N) of drag force-drag that would be necessary to help slow a payload down as it was entering the Martian atmosphere. This is the first of several tests in support of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, as landing on Mars is difficult and not always successful and well-designed advance testing helps.

NASA Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute Test Flight #1
 Onboard view of NASA’s Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute Test Flight #1. Landing on Mars is difficult and not always successful and well-designed advanced testing helps.

The supersonic parachute tested during this first flight was almost an exact copy of the parachute used to land NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (the Curiosity Rover) successfully on the Red Planet in 2012, According to NASA. A 58-foot-tall (17.7-meter) Black Brant IX sounding rocket 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 parachute’s deployment mechanism, and the test’s high-definition instrumentation, including cameras, to record data.

The sounding rocket carried a payload as high as about 32 miles (51 kilometers). Forty-two seconds later, at an altitude of 26 miles (42 kilometers) and a velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound, the test conditions were met and the Mars parachute was successfully deployed. Thirty-five minutes after launch, ASPIRE splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 34 miles (54 kilometers) southeast of Wallops Island.

The next ASPIRE test is planned for February 2018.

Mars 2020 Rover
 NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover. Mars 2020 is the next Mars rover mission by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. It is intended to investigate an astrobiologically relevant ancient environment on Mars, investigate its surface geological processes and history, including the assessment of its past habitability, the possibility of past life on Mars, and potential for preservation of biosignatures within accessible geological materials. The rover’s design will be derived from the Curiosity rover, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, at 15:02 UTC aboard the MSL spacecraft and landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, 05:17 UTC. But it will carry a different scientific payload. It will also carry a total of 23 cameras: 9 for engineering, 7 for science, and 7 for entry, descent, and landing.

The proposed scientific instruments are (as of November 2017):

  • Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine the fine-scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials.
  • Radar Imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment (RIMFAX), a ground-penetrating radar to image different ground densities, structural layers, buried rocks, meteorites, and detect underground water ice and salty brine at 10 meters (33 ft) depth.
  • Mars Environmental Dynamic Analyzer (MEDA), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity, and dust size and shape. It would be provided by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología.
  • The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen (O2) from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This technology could be scaled up in the future for human life support or make rocket fuel for return missions.
  • SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy in rocks and regolith from a distance. It is similar to the ChemCam on the Curiosity rover but with four scientific instruments that will allow it to identify biosignatures.
  • Mastcam-Z, a stereoscopic imaging system with the ability to zoom.
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), an ultraviolet Raman spectrometer that uses fine-scale imaging and an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds.
  • Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS), a solar-powered helicopter drone with a mass of 1 kg (2.2 lb) that could help pinpoint interesting targets for study and plan the best driving route. The helicopter would fly no more than 3 minutes per day and cover a distance of about 1 km (0.62 mi) daily. It has coaxial rotors, a high-resolution downward-looking camera for navigation, landing, and science surveying of the terrain, and a communication system to relay data to the rover. $15 million is being requested to keep the development of the helicopter on track.
  • Microphones, which will be used during the landing event, while driving, and when collecting samples.
  • A total of 23 cameras.

China is also planning to launch its first independent Mars mission in summer 2020. The planned landing will be in 2021. They also successfully tested a supersonic parachute in October, almost at the same time with NASA. They released very few details, but according to reports, the parachute performed as expected and the test is described as a “complete success”.


M. Özgür Nevres

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