Despite what you might imagine, the trickiest part of sending a rover to Mars isn’t space travel – it slows down and lands once you get there. Mars’ thin atmosphere makes it difficult to slow down using a parachute, which is why Martian missions are usually equipped with very large, high-tech parachutes to help the rovers land smoothly on the Red Planet.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos will send 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 damaged during the detachment of the pilot parachute. The team will verify the data and make adjustments in hopes of fixing the issue before the next test later this year.
ESA conducted two tests of the system on June 24 and 25, bringing the parachute to an altitude of 29 km (18 miles) using a helium balloon and dropping it with a dummy descent module which simulates the size and weight of the rover when it lands. The parachute has two stages: a first stage 15 meters wide which opens while the vehicle is still moving at supersonic speeds, and a second stage 35 meters wide, which further slows the vehicle.
“We are very happy to announce that the first main parachute worked perfectly: we have a supersonic parachute design that can fly to Mars,” said Thierry Blancquaert, ExoMars program team leader.
Regarding the problem with the second parachute, Blancquaert went on to say: “The performance of the second main parachute was not perfect but had improved a lot, thanks to the adjustments made to the bag and the canopy. After a smooth extraction of the bag, we experienced an unexpected detachment of the pilot chute during final inflation. This probably means that the main canopy of the parachute has experienced additional pressure in some parts. This created a tear which was contained by a Kevlar reinforcement ring. Despite this, it completed its expected deceleration and the descent module was recovered in good condition.
The team is hoping this issue will be resolved for the next phase of testing, which is slated to take place in October or November this year in Oregon.