Footage from the flight test shows the parachute -- to be used in NASA's 2020 Mars mission -- unfurling as the payload falls back toward Earth. Photo by NASA/YouTube/screen grab
Nov. 14 (UPI) -- NASA plans to send another rover to Mars in 2020. To slow the spacecraft's decent to the Red Planet's surface, scientists have designed a special parachute.
According to a NASA news update, the parachute passed its inaugural test, the first in a series named the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment.
At the end of last month, a rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia carrying the ASPIRE payload and parachute to Earth's upper atmosphere. The payload was safely dispatched, and the parachute successfully deployed, performing a brief flight before the craft splashed into the ocean.
"It is quite a ride," said Ian Clark, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "The imagery of our first parachute inflation is almost as breathtaking to behold as it is scientifically significant. 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 payload was released at an altitude of 32 miles. After free falling for 42 seconds, the parachute was released at an altitude of 26 miles. The release was timed so the payload's speed approximated the speed at which the Mars mission craft will approach the Red Planet.
The parachute deployment and flight proved a success, and the payload splashed into the Atlantic 34 miles 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 next ASPIRE test is scheduled for February of next year. Future tests will likely feature new iterations of the parachute, including a stronger, reinforced parachute. Data from each test will help scientists perfect their craft and parachute design in preparation for the 2020 mission launch.