NASA completes first high altitude supersonic test of Mars 2020 rover parachute

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

NASA successfully completed its first high altitude supersonic test of the parachute that the Mars 2020 rover will use as part of its landing operation.

The rocket carried the 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 successfully deployed. Thirty-five minutes after launch, ASPIRE splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 34 miles (54 kilometers) southeast of Wallops Island. “Everything went according to plan or better than planned,” said Clark. “We not only proved that we could get our payload to the correct altitude and velocity conditions to best mimic a parachute deployment in the Martian atmosphere, but as an added bonus, we got to see our parachute in action as well.”

The parachute tested during this first flight was almost an exact copy of the parachute used to land NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory successfully on the Red Planet in 2012. Future tests will evaluate the performance of a strengthened parachute that could also be used in future Mars missions. The Mars 2020 team will use data from these tests to finalize the design for its mission.

There is a nice video of this test flight at the link.

At first glance one wonders why they need to do these tests, since the parachute system is going to be almost identical to the one used by Curiosity in 2012, and that worked perfectly. However, they really aren’t testing the parachute but the system to fly and test future parachutes at the high altitudes that mimic Martian conditions. With this test technology working and available, it will make it possible to test all kinds of parachute designs for use on Mars, even Rogollo hang-glider chutes.



  • D Ray

    I wish NASA would spend their money on science like this instead of thr SLS.

  • wayne

    Yes– very nice video! (highly recommend the 1080p, 60 fps, version at YouTube)

    NASA’s Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute: Test Flight #1

  • LocalFluff

    Is it this very speciment of a parachute that they will clean, fold and launch with the Mars 2020 rover? Or why else did they make a “test” of something which was already established and tested before MSL?

    Better test all the armchairs too.

  • LocalFluff: Did you not read my post itself? I explained exactly what this test was about, which was not about specifically testing this chute but developing the technology to test many kinds of chutes for use in Mars conditions.

  • LocalFluff

    So then it is not a test for the Mars 2020 rover, which is a physical a copy of the MSL which has already landed successfully. Sounds like they are bloating the budget of this mission for other purposes.

    The whole point of reusing the MSL structure was precisely to avoid extra costs like these parachute tests. Like SLS started out as a simplification of the STS, anything can turn into an eternal nightmare in government space. Even a parachute.

  • LocalFluff: I certainly agree with your skepticism here. These parachute tests could merely be a bloating of the budget. At the same time, having looked at it closely I think it probably is not as bad as that. In order to design atmospheric glide systems for flying in the Martian atmosphere we need some way to test in those conditions. I think this system is an attempt to recreate those conditions.

    We will know if this system is truly pork or not if it gets used again for other types of chutes. If so, it was worth it. If not, it was typical government bloat.

  • Max

    The atmosphere of mars is 7 mbar. The near equivalent of 100,000 feet in earths atmosphere, 19 miles above the surface. The parachute opened up in a much thinner atmosphere after the rocket reached 32 miles high. That is very impressive, I wonder if the fabric was mechanically extended? (in the same fashion that a measuring tape become stiff) Even so, the real question here is how fast was the drop speed at 100,000 feet and how much payload is it limited to for a safe dissent onto the surface? Will they still need airbags for the final drop?

  • Edward

    The purpose of using a known working parachute is to be sure that a failure is due to the system failing, not the parachute failing. NASA has been testing various parachutes in recent years using a different system, LDSD:

    As you can see, they were having some difficulty with either the parachutes or the test system.

    Max points out the thinness of the Mars atmosphere — at the surface. The parachutes will open higher than the surface, so the parachute deployment tests here at Earth are done much higher, too, as 26 miles.

    Problems to be overcome are the increasing masses that we are landing on Mars. As the mass increases, the parachute needed must also bet larger. We have pretty much reached the limits of our knowledge, so when we send people there, along with their cargo, we do not yet have a defined system to get them from escape-velocity speeds to stopped on the surface. We really haven’t looked at this problem since the 1960s, when NASA truly believed that Mars, not low Earth orbit, was next. (4 minutes; “Why is NASA Still Using 1960’s Parachute Test Results?”)

    Airbags for the final drop were good for the lightweight Sojourner Rover, used mostly as a pathfinder for roving on Mars, but airbags were not sufficient for the much heavier Curiosity. Sometimes engineers get crazy creative in order to solve a multitude of problems that occur in a short period of time. (5 minutes)
    Mars is actually really hard to slow down, because it has just enough atmosphere that you have to deal with it, otherwise it will destroy your spacecraft. On the other hand, it doesn’t have enough atmosphere to finish the job.

    This big huge parachute that we’ve got, it’ll only slow us down to about 200 miles per hour. And that’s not slow enough to land.

    SpaceX has a little knowledge on propulsive reentry at Martian atmospheric densities, because they do something similar with their Falcon rockets, but it is not yet enough to know how to land something heavy on Mars.
    Robert commented: “It is my impression that, because NASA has forced SpaceX to give up on propulsive landing of its Dragon manned capsules, the company cannot afford to invest the time and money on it themselves, and thus do not have a method yet for landing a Dragon on Mars.

  • Anthony Domanico


    I’m glad you brought up supersonic retropropulsion because I believe it is the future of landing large payloads on Mars. It seems like it is a system that will scale well, is potentially reusable, and seems simpler (which doesn’t necessarily equate to easier) than chutes and bags and sky cranes and etc.

    As I was reading your post of what Mr. Zimmerman previously said about NASA forcing SpaceX to give up propulsive landing of Dragon V2 an interesting notion popped into my mind. I’m not one to indulge in conspiracy theories, but does it seem plausible to anyone that in order for NASA to save face by not letting SpaceX land a large payload on Mars before NASA, they would claim it was too dangerous to use the technique to land crew and therefore make it too significant of a drain on resources for SpaceX to continue R&D? Perhaps I’m just looking too far into this, but it would be difficult for NASA to explain to the general public how this young company with significantly less resources managed to pull off such a feat when NASA deemed it too difficult to attempt without a decade and billions.

  • wayne

    Edward– good stuff.
    (The Curiosity video you reference, is very well done.)

    Recommend taking a look at this one. They converted the Mars Descent Imager images, at 4 fps, into 32 fps. (Nicely done, except for the phony sound FX’s.)

    Mars Curiosity Descent –
    “HD 30fps Smooth-Motion”

  • wayne

    A very nice combination of computer simulation + actual Mars Descent Imager video:

    “What It’s Like to Land On Mars”
    JPL August 2012

  • Edward

    Thanks for the nice videos. If you haven’t seen them before, JPL made a video series, “Building Curiosity.” (a dozen or so 2-minute videos)

    When they were coming out, I sent links to my father so that he could see what I did for a living (well, without the wheels and with more antennas), when I built communication satellites, because I couldn’t take him into the cleanrooms as a tourist. It also allowed him to see what a college education bought, four decades ago.

  • Max

    Edward posted:
    “Mars is actually really hard to slow down, because it has just enough atmosphere that you have to deal with it, otherwise it will destroy your spacecraft. On the other hand, it doesn’t have enough atmosphere to finish the job.”
    “This big huge parachute that we’ve got, it’ll only slow us down to about 200 miles per hour. And that’s not slow enough to land.”

    I was wondering if a combination parachute and hydrogen balloon working together would do the job.
    Picture a high altitude weather balloon mated to the top side of this parachute, which would begin filling after parachute deployment. The air maybe too thin to have any buoyancy without a massive balloon volume, but being carbon dioxide it might be enough to do the job. You could even have two Mars rovers… One that is placed on the ground and another that remains connected to the balloon for low altitude pictures for exploration before the hydrogen leaks out.

    Done with helium, the mission mapping air currents could last for months before it comes to ground in a selected interesting location so the smaller rover can go exploring.

    There is another option which may sound crazy but it does work, the hot air balloon method. Basically the parachute has a large cavity in the center that a heat source (like a rocket motor) fill’s the volume with hot air that gives it temporary buoyancy (like the hydrogen balloon but without sending the balloon mass to Mars). Think of a retro rockets heat that is captured for a secondary use.
    I suspect that those ideas have already been tried.

  • Edward

    Parachutes are for controlling a descent (such as escaping a failing balloon (early use) or plane (fighter-jockey use)) and balloons are for holding an altitude in the atmosphere. Using both simultaneously would have them fighting each other, and once the balloon’s effects are dominant, then the parachute would collapse and be useless dead weight.

    It may be better to use the parachute to slow down to a slow speed, release the ‘chute while inflating the balloon for remaining aloft (when that is the choice).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *