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ExoMars: The ESA Successfully Drop Tested the Largest Parachute to Ever Go to Mars

Two different versions of the 35-meter-wide subsonic parachute flew perfectly.

The European Space Agency (ESA) completed the first successful high-altitude drop test of the ExoMars mission parachute, which will be the largest to ever fly on Mars, a press statement reveals.

The first and second stage parachutes have now both flown this year, meaning the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover mission is on course to launch for the Red Planet in Sept. 2022. 

ExoMars mission is 'on the road to launch'

The latest high-altitude drop tests took place in Oregon on Nov. 21 and Dec. 3 as part of a series of parachute tests aimed at ensuring the safe landing of the Exomars rover aboard the Kazachok lander, which is currently scheduled for some time in June 2023. The 35-meter-wide subsonic parachute will be the second parachute to deploy during the ExoMars descent modules final moments before touchdown. Two different versions of the 35-meter subsonic parachute were tested, with one developed by European firm Arescosmo, and the backup by U.S.-based Airborne Systems.

"Both parachutes deployed and flew beautifully," said Thierry Blancquaert, ESA Exomars program team leader. "We maximized the lessons learned from all previous tests and with this double success following the impressive first stage parachute deployment earlier this year, we're really on the road to launch. We have demonstrated we have two parachutes to fly to Mars."

Searching for life on Mars

Next, the team will continue to test the parachutes with more high-altitude drop tests scheduled for 2022. The ExoMars mission is a collaboration between the ESA and Russia's space agency, Roscosmos. After almost nine months of traveling through space, the mission will land its rover on Mars at speeds of approximately 13,048 mph (21,000 km/h). The lander will be able to slow down thanks to a thermal shield and its two main parachutes. The 15-meter-wide first stage parachute will deploy while the descent module is at supersonic speeds, and the 35-meter-wide parachute will deploy when it has slowed to subsonic speeds. A retro rocket propulsion system will then be triggered 30 seconds before touchdown.

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ExoMars: The ESA Successfully Drop Tested the Largest Parachute to Ever Go to Mars
An artist's illustration of the ExoMars rover and the Trace Gas Orbiter. Source: ESA/ATG medialab

All of this is similar to the descent of NASA's Perseverance rover to the surface of Mars in February this year. Much like NASA's Perseverance mission, the ExoMars rover's main aim is to investigate whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. The ExoMars program also sent the Trace Gas Orbiter to Mars in 2016 to measure levels of gases that could indicate the existence of ancient life. The Trace Gas Orbiter helped researchers find a "significant amount of water" in Mars' Valles Marineris canyon, with the results released this week.

The Perseverance descent, which has been described as "seven minutes of terror" saw the rover enter Mars' atmosphere at speed of roughly 3.3 miles per second (5.3 km/s). Here's hoping the ExoMars mission executes an equally assured landing.

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