Next year, the NASA rovers Perseverance and Curiosity and the Chinese rover Zhurong will be joined by another Martian explorer: The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos’s ExoMars rover, named after Rosalind Franklin. ESA recently released video footage of its parachute drop test for ExoMars, showing how the spacecraft will be slowed as it approaches the red planet.
“The ExoMars team have performed important parachute drop tests as crucial preparation for a safe touchdown on Mars in 2023,” ESA wrote. “The European Rosalind Franklin rover will search for signs of past life beneath the surface of Mars with its unique two-metre drill and onboard laboratory. The Russian surface science platform Kazachok will study the environment at the landing site. Landing on Mars is always a challenging endeavour and all possible parameters are taken into account.”
The parachute consists of several elements, so the tests were performed on both the first stage supersonic parachute and the second main stage subsonic parachute. The first stage slows the spacecraft down from speeds faster than the speed of sound, while the second stage deploys later, once the craft has slowed to below the speed of sound. The two-part system is necessary because the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, at just 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere, that parachutes have to work extra hard to slow the craft as it approaches the surface. After the parachutes, a propulsion system slows the craft even further before it touches down softly on the surface.
“Going to Mars is quite an adventure, and it took us quite some time to select the most appropriate landing site on Mars,” said Thierry Blancquart, the ExoMars team leader. “It took us five years, actually, to find a place that would be both scientifically interesting, where we could potentially find some traces of past life, and also it had to be a safe area for landing.”
The landing area chosen is called Oxia Planum, which is lower in elevation than much of the planet, at 1.7 miles below the average elevation. That means the craft has more time to brake as it moves through the atmosphere.
To test the parachutes, a test vehicle is attached to them and lifted 18 miles into the air using a balloon. Then a pilot chute is used to deploy the parachute and the result is filmed to check everything works as it should. Each of the two parachutes was tested separately in this instance, though in the real mission they will have to operate sequentially.
The launch window for the ExoMars rover is scheduled to begin on 20 September this year, with the aim to land on Mars on June 10, 2023.