In a recent post from SpaceX about Crew Dragon parachute test you can see how the main parachutes are deployed in semi-folded state, after a while they inflate a bit and after another while they finally fully extend.

Images of the sequence steps captured from the linked video:

enter image description here

How is this sequence timed and driven? Is it just aerodynamic forces, are there any control strings or is it something different?

  • $\begingroup$ Inflation of the parachute should be tested very thoroughly in a wind tunnel. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 27, 2018 at 10:36

2 Answers 2


Concerning the part of the question, "How is this sequence timed and driven? Is it just aerodynamic forces, are there any control strings or is it something different?" there are passive methods and active methods.

Passive methods include that mentioned by @BobJacobsen, line drag, which slows the inflation by the time it takes to pull a line through a conduit in the canopy. Another is an "energy modulator", such as a rip-stitch tape shown in this JPL presentation on parachute deployment for the LDSD (Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator) tests, and this COSPAR presentation (abstract only) about reducing opening shock for scientific balloon flight termination.

Active methods often involve pyrotechnic line cutters, activated by an electric signal sent by a timing circuit, g-switch, or accelerometer feeding a pyro control system. I worked on the parachute for NASA's Genesis mission that returned samples of the solar wind to Earth, and it used pyrotechnic line cutters. Actually, it was not strictly a parachute, it was a parafoil, which unlike a parachute generates aerodynamic lift, not just drag. Unfortunately, due to a g-switch installed upside-down on the re-entry vehicle, the parafoil never got the command to deploy. Had it deployed, it would have opened with "brake" lines (that pull down on the trailing edge of the parafoil) shortened to reduce the forward opening surge you get with a parafoil. After the initial opening transients had decayed pyro line cutters would have severed the short lines maintaining ~60-cm loops in the brake lines, letting those loops straighten and the brake lines go to full length, essentially "coming off the brakes". In helicopter drop tests of the parafoil that system worked very well. The folks at Pioneer Aerospace, who built the Genesis parafoil, spoke of using such pyro devices in a wide range of parafoil and parachute applications.

  • $\begingroup$ But where are those pyrotechnic line cutters mounted? Close to the reefing line at the canopy or down at the payload? Using very long electrical cables to control the pyro or a long rope up to the reefing line? $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 29, 2018 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe On Genesis they were close to the payload, but that was easy with that system because the brake lines go from the risers, close to the payload, to the canopy anyway. Having a reefing line extend all the way from a round canopy to the payload would be more problematic, with more chance of tangling that line in the suspension lines. It would be good to hear from people out there who worked on a round 'chute that used reefing: how did you release a reefing line? $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2018 at 15:19

I don't know what Dragon uses, but large air-drop parachutes use a "reefing" technique. There's a "reefing line" around the circumference of the parachute that controls its expansion:

enter image description here

The (significant) forces trying to inflate the parachute pull the line through, but it takes some time during which the parachute is only partially inflated and the deceleration force is reduced. In the simplest systems, the length of the line controls the time it takes for this to happen:

enter image description here

The line has a tail piece hanging below the parachute that slowly feeds for a short time, then the parachute becomes un-reefed and can expand as the free end feeds through the pockets in the chute. The line itself is parachute cord with limited stretch: It holds firm at a particular size, until it doesn't.

More complicated systems can use more than one line, and control their release timing more precisely. From the video, it looks like SpaceX might be using two of these at separate levels in the parachutes. According to a test report, both Apollo and the Space Shuttle boosters used a two-stage reefing system controlled by pyrotechnics.

  • $\begingroup$ Is the reefing line made of elastic material like rubber to control the expansion? $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 27, 2018 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe On the one's I'm familiar with, it's another piece of parachute cord with very limited stretch. Added a bit more at the end of the answer. $\endgroup$ Jun 27, 2018 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, reefing lines, and prayers. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Jun 28, 2018 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ If the reefings system is controlled by pyrotechnics, what about the electric controll of the pyros? Very long electrical cables from payload up to the reefing lines or timed detonators started just before deployment of parachutes? $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jun 28, 2018 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe Not sure what Dragon does. When dropping really heavy objects at high speed, the Marines use a single reefing line that runs back to the pallet. It's cut there (at the pallet) and the timing allows for the pull-time of that cord. $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2018 at 17:33

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