A suborbital launch from Wallops Flight Facility tested a critical piece of landing hardware for the Mars 2020 rover.
Most of drama in the history of spaceflight occurs unseen on remote worlds in the solar system. No human eyes were on hand, for example, to see the climax of Curiosity's “seven minutes of terror” as it descended to the Martian surface in 2012.
Now, NASA has released an amazing new video of a key test, showing what one portion of a future landing might look like — that of Mars 2020.
Early on the morning of October 14, 2017, NASA launched a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket with the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE). NASA conducted the launch from its mid-Atlantic Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The goal of the short suborbital mission: test a copy of the parachute that will slow down the Mars 2020 rover as it comes in for landing at 12,000 mph (5.4 kilometers per second).
“It is quite a wild ride,” says Ian Clark (NASA/JPL) in a recent press release. “The imagery of our first parachute inflation is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant.” The second-stage and onboard cameras give us an amazing view of just what a spacecraft hurtling towards the Red Planet looks like as it unfurls its parachute.
This is no ordinary parachute. Landing on Mars is challenging, as the tenuous Martian atmosphere is just substantial enough that engineers have to take it into consideration. The hefty parachute, made of nylon, Technora, and Kevlar, will deploy at nearly 100 mph.
A "Wild Ride" for Science
The Black Brant IX rocket carried ASPIRE to an apogee of 32 miles (51 kilometers). Onboard sensors triggered 42 seconds later at an altitude of 26 miles. As the craft had reached 1.8 times the speed of sound, the sensors were signaling that the external atmospheric conditions and speed had been met to simulate Martian atmospheric entry, and the parachute deployed. Just 35 minutes after launch, ASPIRE splashed down 34 miles southeast of Wallops in the Atlantic Ocean. (Contrast this with the 3-hour balloon test for the first Viking landers carried out over White Sands Missile Range, in southern New Mexico back in July and August 1972.)
The ASPIRE parachute is almost an exact duplicate of the one used to slow Curiosity during its dramatic sky-crane landing in 2012. You can see the long parachute unwind in the slow motion version of the video. Engineers will study the video frame-by-frame to assure the parachute worked properly and to see if any design modifications are needed. NASA plans to carry out another ASPIRE test early next year in February 2018.
Preparing for Mars
A nuclear-powered, SUV-sized rover similar to Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover will specifically target questions of past habitability and whether life ever existed on Mars. Launching in July 2020, the Mars 2020 rover will target one of three landing sites slated for possible selection next year.
The parachute is a critical component of the complicated landing process. The recent success of ASPIRE follows less successful tests of NASA's Low Density Supersonic Decelerator. LDSD's parachute shredded shortly after deployment during balloon tests launched from Kauai, Hawai'i, in 2014 (see video below) and 2015.
Everything has to work just right, and in the right sequence. The European Space Agency lost its Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module Schiaparelli due to an altitude interpretation error last year on October 19, 2016, causing it to plummet the final 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers). NASA's Mars Polar Lander suffered a similar fate on December 3, 1999, when a faulty landing strut indicator — the most likely culprit — caused the braking engine to shut off prematurely, making for a hard landing.
NASA actually has a pretty good track record of landing on Mars, having lost only one lander for eight total attempts. But past difficulties are the reason why engineers test hardware here on Earth, then test it again. Hopefully we're denying the “Galactic Ghoul” another tasty human-built Mars spacecraft through careful planning and preparation.