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Watch NASA test its supersonic parachute for future Mars mission

The parachute will be used to land the next rover on the Red Planet.
Image: supersonic parachute
An advanced supersonic parachute system is inflated during a test on Oct. 4.NASA JPL

NASA is planning to send its next rover to Mars in 2020, and when it reaches the Red Planet, it will descend through the thin Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour. To slow itself down, the spacecraft is going to need a good parachute. A very good parachute.

The space agency recently tested one such chute, and dramatic footage of the event shows the safety device opening at supersonic speeds.

“It is quite a ride,” Ian Clark, an aerospace engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the leader of the test, said in a written statement. “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.”

For the Oct. 4 test, a 58-foot-tall Black Brant IX sounding rocket was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket reached an altitude of 32 miles before starting its descent. The parachute, housed within a cylindrical structure, was deployed at an altitude of 26 miles, when the capsule was plummeting at Mach 1.8 (1.8 times the speed of sound, or about 1,380 miles per hour).

How did the parachute perform? Flawlessly. “Everything went according to plan or better than planned,” Clark said in the statement.

An advanced supersonic parachute system is inflated during a test on Oct. 4.NASA JPL

But NASA’s parachute tests haven’t always been smooth sailing. In 2015, the agency tested a supersonic parachute that didn’t end nearly as well. On that occasion, a 100-foot-wide chute was ripped apart as it deployed.

NASA’s next supersonic parachute test is scheduled for February 2018. The Mars 2020 mission will land a rover on the Red Planet to search for signs of past microbial life.