ExoMars Parachute Test Fails, for the Second Time

Trace Gas Orbiter, Schiaparelli and the ExoMars rover at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

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.

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Watch Live: NASA’s Orion Parachute Test

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Powerful quartet of LAS abort motors will fire in case of launch emergency to save astronauts lives. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA is testing out the parachutes for the new Orion crew vehicle, and in a first, is broadcasting it live as a Google+ Hangout from the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. They are also going to make something bad happen, and will be happy if it works! Watch live above (from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. EDT July 24) or watch the replay later as an Orion test capsule is dropped from a plane at 10,700 meters (35,000 feet) to evaluate its parachutes.

Engineers will simulate a failure of one of the spacecraft’s three main parachutes, releasing it before Orion has landed.

Update: Despite a bad video feed, the test was a success.

“The closer we can get to actual flight conditions, the more confidence we gain in the system,” said Chris Johnson after the test. Johnson is project manager for the Orion capsule parachute assembly system at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “What we saw today — other than the failures we put in on purpose — is very similar to what Orion will look like coming back during Exploration Flight Test-1’s Earth entry next year.”

One of three massive main parachutes was cut away early on purpose, and so the spacecraft was left with just two parachutes. However, the capsule still landed safely. Wednesday’s test was the highest-altitude test of a human spacecraft parachute since NASA’s Apollo Program.

During previous tests for Orion’s parachutes, a mock capsule was dropped from a height of 25,000 feet and the parachutes deployed at no higher than 22,000 feet. The extra 10,000 feet of altitude at the beginning of Wednesday’s test made the demonstration the best so far of Orion’s parachute flight and landing.

This test was in preparation for the Exploration Flight Test-1, an uncrewed test of the spacecraft that will send Orion 5,800 km (3,600 miles) away from Earth, scheduled for September 2014. Orion’s parachutes are being tested to ensure they can slow the capsule for a safe landing in the Pacific Ocean as the spacecraft reenters Earth’s atmosphere from deep space missions at speeds of up to 32,000 km/h (20,000 mph.)