Credit: ESA


There’s concern regarding the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars-2020 becoming ExoMars-2022.

The issue involves parachute testing and a series of snags to flight qualify the system. ExoMars teams continue to troubleshoot the parachute design following an unsuccessful high-altitude drop test last week.

This ESA ExoMars mission comprises a rover and surface science platform, destined for launch next year. The mission is slated for liftoff within a July 25–August 13, 2020 launch window, arriving at Mars in March 2021.

Artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2020 rover and Russia’s stationary surface platform in background.
ESA/ATG medialab

Oh chute!

In a just-issued ESA statement:

As part of the planned ExoMars testing prior to launch, several parachute tests were conducted at the Swedish Space Corporation Esrange site. The first took place last year and demonstrated the successful deployment and inflation of the largest main parachute in a low-altitude drop test from 1.2 kilometers, deployed by a helicopter. The parachute has a diameter of 115 feet (35 meters) – the largest parachute ever to fly on a Mars mission.

“On May 28 this year, the deployment sequence of all four parachutes was tested for the first time from a height of 29 km – released from a stratospheric helium balloon. While the deployment mechanisms activated correctly, and the overall sequence was completed, both main parachute canopies suffered damage.”

Following hardware inspection, adaptations were implemented to the design of the parachutes and bags ready for the next high-altitude test, which was conducted on August 5, this time just focusing on the larger 35-meter diameter parachute.

Sizes of key components of the ExoMars 2020 mission.
Credit: ESA

Canopy damage

According to the ESA statement, preliminary assessment shows that the initial steps were completed correctly, however damages to the canopy were observed prior to inflation, similar to the previous test. As a result, the test module descended under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

According to ESA, a further high-altitude test is already foreseen for the first main parachute before the end of 2019. The next qualification attempt of the second main parachute is then anticipated for early 2020.

Ground simulations

Additionally, and in parallel, ExoMars teams are investigating the possibility to manufacture additional parachute test models and conducting ground-based simulations to mimic the dynamic nature of parachute extraction, since there are not many opportunities for full-scale high-altitude drop tests.

Lastly, in addition to the regular forum of exchanges between ESA and NASA experts, a workshop of Mars parachute specialists will convene next month to share knowledge.

NASA Mars Exploration Rover parachute undergoes rigorous testing within NASA Ames facility.
Credit: NASA

Time running short

Inside Outer Space sources underscore that the ExoMars mission does have a far more complex parachute decelerator system than those used for NASA Mars missions.

Whether ExoMars is experiencing a parachute problem or other things associated with the parachute system is not clear.

And with time running short, ESA/NASA discussions can be muddled due to Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA) and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) rules and regulations.

NASA Curiosity mission parachute testing.
Credit: NASA

NASA nail biting

On the NASA side, the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project – Spirit and Opportunity – went through similar nail biting as parachute drop testing at China Lake encountered problems. A chute redesign was needed, along with use of the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) at NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA’s mega-parachute for the Curiosity Mars lander mission underwent a total of six different tests between October 2007 and April 2009 within the NFAC. That parachute had 80 suspension lines, measured more than 50 meters (165 feet) in length, and opened to a diameter of nearly 51 feet (16 meters).

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