When the Perseverance Rover recently landed on Mars, there was an inscription etched into the parachute mortar tube on the descent stage. Wallops is mentioned due to the work that was done by the Wallops Sounding Rockets Program to help test the Mars Perseverance supersonic parachute back in 2017 and 2018 (known as the ASPIRE missions) in preparation for the recent successful landing of the rover this past February. All the parachute tests were very successful, and helped the Jet Propulsion Lab team feel comfortable that they had designed a suitable parachute that would properly slow down the Perseverance Rover after it entered the Mars atmosphere.
“This mission required us to design and build a 72-ft parachute that could survive inflating in a Mach 2 wind in about half a second. This is an extraordinary engineering challenge, but one that was absolutely necessary for the mission,” said Ian Clark, the test’s technical lead from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “To ensure they worked at Mars under those harsh conditions, we had to test our parachute designs here at Earth first. Replicating the Martian environment meant that we needed to get our payload half way to the edge of space and going twice the speed of sound. Sounding rockets were critical to our testing and ultimately our landing on Mars.”
The NASA team tested the parachute three times in Mars-relevant conditions, using Black Brant IX sounding rockets. The final test flight exposed the chute to a 67,000-pound (300,000- Newton) load — the highest ever survived by a supersonic parachute and about 85% higher than what the mission’s chute was expected to encounter during deployment in Mars’ atmosphere.
“When the spacecraft successfully touched down last week it was a great feeling of accomplishment for the parachute testing team,” said Giovanni Rosanova, chief of the NASA Sounding Rockets Program Office at Wallops. “Placing the test component in the right conditions with a sounding rocket was challenging and the importance of the tests to the success of the Mars landing was an exciting motivating factor for the team. We are proud to have been a part of this mission.”
NASA is currently developing plans for a Mars Sample Return mission to retrieve the rocks and soil samples collected by Perseverance and return them to Earth. Teams are preparing to test concepts for the Mars Ascent Vehicle that will carry the collected samples from the planet’s surface.
Suborbital vehicles, either a sounding rocket or a scientific balloon, are being examined for testing the ascent vehicle. Wallops personnel are excited to be a part of this next step of exploring the red planet as we go the Moon, Mars, and beyond.