NASA Mars 2020 rover concept

NASA is testing out a supersonic parachute for landing Mars rovers

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Sep 12, 2018, 5:58 PM EDT

When you’re landing a rover on Mars, you don’t just use a parachute. You use a supersonic parachute that can go from the size of a barrel to the size of a house faster than the speed of sound.

NASA recently tested the super-parachute that will help its upcoming Mars 2020 rover touch down on the Red Planet. The space agency wanted to use this suborbital launch, part of its Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE), to expose the parachute and rover to the conditions they would encounter in the Martian atmosphere (or lack thereof). The program’s latest parachute to launch was ASPIRE III.

“The purpose of the ASPIRE series of missions is to demonstrate the high velocity deployment of parachute systems towards the ultimate goal of developing a system that can be utilized to do land payloads on to the surface of Mars,” says the official NASA website for the program.

ASPIRE builds parachutes designed to not float away in what is left of the degraded Martian atmosphere, holding on enough to buffer the landings of robotic spacecraft such as Mars 2020. The thinness of that atmosphere is the reason the 200-pound ASPIRE III, made partially from Kevlar, needs to be so huge, and packed tightly enough to be denser than hardwood. Its ability to multiply its size so many times as it unfurls — all in the space of less than half a second — makes it supersonic. That definitely doesn’t happen in skydiving.

NASA supersonic parachute

What a supersonic parachute looks like on the way down. Credit: NASA

The parachute system was actually put through even more intense conditions than what it is predicted to encounter on Mars, with this launch challenging it to drags over 40 percent higher than expected after it takes off for real. Passing these tests makes its success that much more of a sure thing, though space can always be unpredictable. It was also equipped with cameras to record data that could be useful in determining any needed upgrades.

“This is really a strength test of that Mars 2020 design,” said NASA JPL mechanical engineer Jeremy Hill during a webcast of the launch. “We want to get as close to the Martian environment as we can.”

Around two minutes after the parachute was launched on a two-stage rocket and blasted to an altitude of 32 miles, it unfurled and plummeted faster than the speed of sound. Boats were waiting to retrieve it after it made a splash in the Atlantic Ocean. Engineers will study data from this test flight to make sure Mars 2020 will make it to the surface without a massive crash. The parachute was assembled with over a million stitches, and it needs to be confirmed that every single one of those stayed in place. If not, NASA might need to level up.

So long as the ASPIRE parachutes can keep proving themselves by shooting through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds, Mars 2020 is totally happening.