The EarthSky.org article Supersonic parachute test off Virginia coast March 27 and the linked YouTube video NASA’s Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute: Test Flight #1 describes a recent test launched by a Terrier Malamute sounding rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia. Read more about the rocket and its peculiar name in Why a Terrier Malemute?.

According to the article:

This will be the second test of the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE), which is part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission NASA said about the program:

  • Landing on Mars is difficult and not always successful. Well-designed advance testing helps. An ambitious NASA Mars rover mission set to launch in 2020 will rely on a special parachute to slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph (5.4 km per second).

I'd thought that the Mars2020 rover would be similar in size and mass to Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, and so could leverage a proven successful design for landing.

What, if anything, is new and different about this parachute and the way Mars2020 will land, compared to MSL? Why is a new parachute design needed or at least desirable?

NASA’s Mars 2020 Supersonic Parachute Test Flight 1

above: GIF from video at about 02:04


NASA explains some of the answer. Curiousity did use a parachute in the early phases of its descent, and Mars 2020 will use a skycrane for touchdown. The difference is "Range Trigger" -- Mars 2020 may vary the time (and therefore velocity) at which it triggers its parachute to open so as to land closer to its objective. Range Trigger is also discussed further in this answer. This must have impacts on the triggering mechanism and the parachute design, and I assume these tests are related to that.


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