A supersonic parachute that will be used in NASA’s Mars 2020 mission has been successfully tested at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.
Footage of the parachute being deployed at a velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound has been released by the space agency. Ian Clark, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the parachute test was “quite a ride.”
“The imagery of our first parachute inflation is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant,” he said in a statement. “For the first time, we get to see what it would look like to be in a spacecraft hurtling towards the Red Planet, unfurling its parachute.”
The parachute was taken to an altitude of 26 miles before being deployed. It was carried up on the 58-foot-tall Black Brant IX rocket which recorded the deployment. Footage shows the parachute opening then falling back down to Earth—the journey from space back down to the Atlantic Ocean took approximately 35 minutes.
NASA will test the parachute, named ASPIRE (Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment), again in February next year.
“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 will be used to slow the descent of the Mars Science Laboratory, allowing it to land on the surface of the planet undamaged. Researchers at NASA will now analyze the data from the test flight to see if there are any improvements that can be made and to finalize its design for the mission.
Mars 2020 will be NASA’s next rover mission to the Red Planet. One of its primary goals is to get a better understanding about the potential for alien life on Mars—both present and past. It will do this by drilling down beneath the planet’s surface where it will collect core samples of rocks and soil. It is hoped these will contain traces of any life that once existed, or that still does exist—potentially answering one of the most fundamental questions of life: Are we alone in the universe?