NASA tests supersonic parachute, to help us land on Mars

Sub-orbital rocket worked, but the telemetry indicates a sudden descent

Vid NASA has successfully tested a parachute designed for low-density atmospheres like that found on Mars.

The test saw the NASA Wallops facility launch a Black Brant IX rocket, a 58-footer often used for tests and sub-orbital missions, as part of the agency's Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE).

The 58 km (31.62 mile) flight ended with an Atlantic splashdown, and success for the ASPIRE payload that tests parachutes in a “low density, supersonic environment”.

Thin atmospheres are a challenge for parachutes, so projects like ASPIRE are one way humanity plans to end journeys across space without a too-hard landing on another planet or moon.

As well as inflating in a thin atmosphere, a Martian landing would also need to withstand – and decelerate from – much higher starting velocities than an Earth-bound parachutist (or even an uncrewed payload passing through Earth's dense atmosphere).

The video below shows the launch and some test data. While its narrator says the parachute deployed, The Reg worries about the sharp descent that seems not to follow the hoped-for flight profile.

Youtube Video

NASA's site is devoid of detail about ASPIRE's design, but does contain several references to supersonic decceleration-capable 'chutes with a "disksail configuration" that combine a conventional disk-shaped canopy with a "ringsail". Disksails sound like a good idea, if only because NASA's 2015 test of a “flying saucer” failed to decelerate and had a hard splashdown west of Hawaii after its ringsail blew apart.

With the ASPIRE payload recovered, NASA will now get to work analysing data to see if the 'chute did the business. ®

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