Despite what you might imagine, the trickiest part of sending a rover to Mars isn’t the journey through space — it’s slowing down and landing once you arrive there. Mars’s thin atmosphere makes slowing using a parachute difficult, which is why Mars missions are typically equipped with very large and high-tech parachutes to help rovers touch down gently on the red planet.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos will be sending their ExoMars rover to Mars in 2022, and they recently performed a high-altitude test of the rover’s parachute. But there were problems during the test, with one of the two parachutes being damaged when the pilot chute detached. The team will be checking data and making adjustments in the hope of fixing the issue before the next test later this year.
ESA performed two tests of the system over June 24 and 25, taking the parachute to an altitude of 29 km (18 miles) using a helium balloon and dropping it along with a dummy descent module which simulates the size and weight of the rover as it will land. The parachute has two stages: A 15-meter-wide first stage which opens while the vehicle is still traveling at supersonic speeds, and a 35-meter-wide second stage, which slows the vehicle further.
“We’re very happy to report that the first main parachute performed perfectly: We have a supersonic parachute design that can fly to Mars,” said Thierry Blancquaert, ExoMars program team leader.
Regarding the issue with the second parachute, Blancquaert went on to say, “The performance of the second main parachute was not perfect but much improved, thanks to the adjustments made to the bag and canopy. After a smooth extraction from the bag, we experienced an unexpected detachment of the pilot chute during final inflation. This likely means that the main parachute canopy suffered extra pressure in certain parts. This created a tear that was contained by a Kevlar reinforcement ring. Despite that, it fulfilled its expected deceleration and the descent module was recovered in good state.”
The team hopes to have this issue resolved ready for the next testing phase, which is scheduled to take place in October or November this year in Oregon.