The European Space Agency (ESA) has tested the largest Mars parachute ever, which will be used to deliver their life-finding ExoMars rover to the Red Planet in 2021.
The test took place in sub-zero conditions in Kiruna, Sweden, earlier this month. A helicopter was used to hoist a prototype version of the spacecraft that will deliver the rover to Mars. Then, it was dropped and two parachutes were deployed in sequence.
The first was a pilot parachute 4.8 meters (15.7 feet) across. But all eyes were on the second parachute, a huge 35 meters (115 feet) across, connected to the spacecraft by 112 cables.
“It was a very exciting moment to see this giant parachute unfurl and deliver the test module to the snowy surface in Kiruna,” Thierry Blancquaert, ESA ExoMars Carrier Module and Descent Module manager, said in a statement.
This test was designed to make sure the parachute, which weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds), would deploy successfully. In the future, the team plan to drop it from a height of 28 kilometers (17 miles) to simulate the landing on Mars.
The ExoMars rover, weighing about 310 kilograms (680 pounds), is scheduled to launch in July 2020, landing on Mars in 2021. It is the second part of the ExoMars mission, with the first – consisting of the Schiaparelli lander and the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) – arriving two years ago.
Of some concern will be the failure of Schiaparelli, which crashed into the surface of Mars in October 2016. While attempting to land, a computer glitch caused the spacecraft to think it was underground, resulting in it detaching its parachute too high and slamming into the surface.
The huge parachute is more than twice the previous record holder, the 15-meter (52-foot) parachute used for the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover in August 2012. Curiosity, which weighs almost three times the ExoMars rover, used an innovative sky crane system to touch down on the surface after using its parachute.
Above a certain weight, landing on Mars becomes extremely difficult as parachutes can no longer slow the spacecraft down sufficiently. The planet has only a thin atmosphere, so other methods are frequently used in tandem. ExoMars will have thrusters and airbags to bring the rover to a soft landing on the ground.
Once it has landed, the rover is going to be searching for biosignatures that could be linked to life. It will have a drill that enables it to look underground for subsurface ice, and a suite of instruments to complete its objectives.
Before all that, though, we just need to make sure it gets there safely, which is why parachute tests like this are important.