ExoMars Parachute Test Fails, for the Second Time

Next year, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sending the ExoMars 2020 mission to the Red Planet. This mission consists of an ESA-built rover (Rosalind Franklin) and a Russian-led surface science platform (Kazachok) that will study the Martian environment in order to characterize its surface, atmosphere, and determine whether or not life could have once existed on the planet.

In preparation for this mission, engineers are putting the rover and lander through their paces. This includes the ongoing development of the mission’s parachute system, which is currently in troubleshooting after a failed deployment test earlier this month. These efforts are taking place at the Swedish Space Corporation testing site in Esrange, and involve the largest parachute ever used by a mission to Mars.

Once the rover and lander are ready, they will be placed inside a descent module that will be transported to Mars by a carrier module (which will be launched from Baikonur atop a Russian Proton rocket). Once it enters Mars’ atmosphere, the descent module will rely on two parachutes (each of which has its own pilot chute for extraction) to slow itself down to the point where the braking engines can engage.

This entire sequence takes only six minutes and is absolutely necessary for the mission to make a soft landing. To ensure that everything is in order, several parachute tests have been carried out at the SSC’s Esrange site. The first took place last year and successfully demonstrated the deployment and inflation of the descent module’s 35-meter (115-foot) main parachute from an altitude of 1.2 km (0.75 mi).

Back in May, all four parachutes underwent a deployment test from an altitude of 29 km (18 mi), where they were dropped from a stratospheric helium balloon. While the deployment mechanisms activated correctly and the overall sequence was completed, both of the main parachutes canopies suffered damage. Inspections were carried out and adaptations were made to the design of the parachutes and bags.

What followed was another high-altitude test involving just the larger 35 m parachute, which took place a few weeks ago (on Monday, August 5th). Once again, while a preliminary assessment showed that the initial steps were completed successfully, the canopy was similarly damaged prior to inflation – forcing the test module to descend under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

As Francois Spoto, the team leader of the ESA’s ExoMars mission, commented:

“It is disappointing that the precautionary design adaptations introduced following the anomalies of the last test have not helped us to pass the second test successfully, but as always we remain focused and are working to understand and correct the flaw in order to launch next year.”

ExoMars 2020 parachute deployment sequence. Credit: ESA

At present, the mission teams are evaluating all the hardware, videos and recorded telemetries in the hopes of finding the root cause of the anomaly. The team’s analysis of the data will inform further modifications and adaptations that might be required in order to get the parachute system up and running in advance of the next tests.

Barring any serious issues, this test is likely to take place before the end of the year while the next qualification attempt of the second main parachute is anticipated for early 2020. Meanwhile, the teams are considering the creation of additional test models and conducting ground-based simulations that will recreate the dynamics of high-altitude drop tests.

This will help iron out any of the bugs ahead of actual tests, for which opportunities are quite rare. In addition, specialists from NASA and the ESA will be convening next month to share information and address mission concerns. As Spoto explained:

“Getting to Mars and in particular landing on Mars is very difficult. We are committed to flying a system that will safely deliver our payload to the surface of Mars in order to conduct its unique science mission.”

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Exomars rover exploring the Martian surface. Credit:ESA

Both the rover and lander are nearing completion, the latter of which will soon be commencing its environmental test campaign at Airbus Toulouse, in Cannes, France. Similarly, the flight carrier module – which consists of the descent module and lander platform – will begin its final round of testing at Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, France.

Barring any delays, the rover will and spacecraft will be integrated early next year. The mission is currently scheduled to launch during the window that runs from July 25th and August 13th, 2020. Once they arrive on Mars, the Rosalind Franklin rover and the Kazachok lander will join a chorus of robotic missions that are searching for clues to Mars past.

Further Reading: ESA