NASA's Crazy Awesome Rocket-Propelled Parachute Test

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When you strap a rocket to anything, you’re pretty much guaranteed an awesome experience (well, usually). And when it comes to strapping rockets, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better at it than NASA.

Introducing the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a system that will one day be used to land humans on Mars. But before that happens, some extensive testing needs to be carried out.

ANALYSIS: Curiosity’s Old Parachute Flaps in the Martian Wind

The LDSD is a project that involves developing new and old technologies to effectively decelerate large payloads through the Martian atmosphere before landing on the Red Planet’s surface. One of the most effective methods of slowing stuff down as they barrel through an atmosphere is to use a parachute. But as the Martian atmosphere is around 100 times thinner than Earth’s, really big parachutes need to be constructed.

In the video above, as described by mechanical engineer Mike Meacham at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., in the case of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory that carried out a flawless Martian landing in August 2012, large parachutes can usually be tested inside wind tunnels on Earth before being strained by a supersonic atmospheric entry on Mars.

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However, payloads that will be softly landed on Mars during a human mission will be many times more massive than the one-ton Curiosity rover. So these parachutes will be huge; so huge in fact that they are too big to be tested inside NASA’s wind tunnels.

This is where the rocket comes in.

During an experiment at the U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Calif., NASA carried out an atmospheric test of a large prototype parachute. Using a helicopter to carry the unfurled parachute high above the ground, a system of tethered pulleys then started to add tension to the parachute as the helicopter released it. Once inflated, a rocket sled took over, rapidly dragging the ‘chute to the ground. The rocket provided the necessary thrust to simulate a supersonic Mars entry.

ANALYSIS: Mars Rover Curiosity’s Retro Parachute

In this particular test, the parachute failed, forming a huge rip, highlighting the need for thorough terrestrial tests before anything is launched at Mars.

“Really, the point of these tests is to find these flaws, we want to see how far we can push these parachutes, we want to see what’s wrong with them,” said Meacham. “And more importantly than anything we want to see if it happens here on Earth before we spend all the real big bucks and go to Mars.”