European Space Agency tests giant parachute for its 2021 ExoMars mission

Parachutes may just help us get to Mars. A few days ago, the European Space Agency (ESA) tested its ExoMars landing parachutes for the first time, and happily, the trial parachute made it to ground without incident. Sure, the chute was deployed less than a mile above the Earth’s surface, but still, the fact that it managed to land smoothly marked a major milestone: It proved the ability of the parachute to descend with no fewer than 112 lines connected to a 1,100-pound test load. The parachute weighs in at 154 pounds total, and will be crucial to delivering the ExoMars rover to the Red Planet in a few years’ time.

The parachute, if successful, will become the largest ever to fly on a Mars mission, while the rover in tow will be the “first of its kind to drill below the surface and determine if evidence of life is buried underground, protected from the destructive radiation that impinges the surface today,” the ESA noted in a release. The latest test took place in sub-zero conditions in Kiruna, Sweden, which is meant to imitate the frigid temperatures the parachute will face on Mars. In its next test, the ESA will deploy the chute from a stratospheric balloon hovering around 19 miles off the ground — this ought to more closely reflect Mars’ low atmospheric pressure.

“The successful deployment of our large ExoMars parachute using a smaller pilot chute and its subsequent stable descent without damage, is a major milestone for the project,” said ESA’s Thierry Blancquaert, one of the members of the ExoMars team. “It was a very exciting moment to see this giant parachute unfurl and deliver the test module to the snowy surface in Kiruna.”

Later on in testing, the ESA will conduct a “full parachute deployment sequence, which comprises two main parachutes, each with a pilot chute,” the agency noted. If all goes well, we can expect to see the spacecraft carrying the chute take off in 2020. “We’re looking forward to assessing the full parachute descent sequence in the upcoming high-altitude tests,” Blancquaert noted. And we can say quite certainly, so are we.