February 6, 2014

How Does NASA Test a Martian Parachute? With a Rocket Sled

In the video above, NASA engineers use a rocket sled to test an enormous supersonic parachute that could one day land spacecraft on Mars. Oh yeah, did we mention that NASA has a rocket sled?

The pulse-pounding test (set to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” for extra oomph) took place recently at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California. The sled has four rockets to quickly accelerate an enormous supersonic parachute about 110 feet in diameter to see how it holds up under such stress. The data will help researchers refine their designs for this parachute, which could one day be deployed on Mars to slow a lander down from Mach 2, nearly 1,100 mph, to less than 175 mph.

NASA needs such technology if they ever want to put an object larger than the Curiosity rover down on Mars’ surface. Currently, the agency has been living off the legacy of its 1970s Viking-era technology, which has reached its limit. Without new techniques, nothing larger than the 1-ton Curiosity rover can ever land on the Red Planet, including a potential human mission, which NASA estimates will need to carry more than 40 tons to the Martian surface.

The problem is that Mars’ thin atmosphere can’t fully inflate a large parachute in time to stop a heavy landing vehicle from crashing to the ground. And that’s where new technology enters the picture. In addition to the gigantic parachute seen in the video above, NASA is testing several experimental designs known as low-density supersonic decelerators. These are rigid inflatables, somewhere between a parachute and a balloon, that increase drag to slow a vehicle down while holding up to the stress of moving much faster than the speed of sound. Such devices are being tested for many aspects of spaceflight, including by our own DIY rocketeer, Kristian von Begtson.

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