ExoMars 2020 Mission Suffers Second Parachute Test Failure

The project that will deliver a European rover and a Russian platform to the surface of Mars has been hit by another parachute failure, during a high-altitude drop test in Sweden.

The European Space Agency (ESA) confirmed on August 12 that another test of the parachutes that will be used on the ExoMars 2020 lander mission failed last week. A similar trial conducted back in May on the same parachutes also ended up malfunctioning. The failure could put the targeted July 2020 launch date into jeopardy.

The ExoMars parachute deployment sequence that will deliver a surface platform and rover to the surface of Mars. (Photo Credit: ESA)

The plan is to send the Rosalind Franklin rover and the Russian-led surface platform, Kazachok, in a descent module, and transported to Mars by a carrier module, following launch on a Proton rocket.

The rover will collect samples of soil with a drill and analyze them for the presence of organic material, which could provide clues to the presence of past or even current life on Mars.

The descent module needs two parachutes – each with its own pilot chute for extraction – to help slow the craft prior to landing. Following separation of the parachutes, the speed must be suitable for the braking engines to safely deliver the landing platform and the rover onto the surface of Mars.

During a high-altitude test of the larger of the two parachutes on August 5 in Kiruna, Sweden, a test mass designed to represent the combined lander and rover was dropped from a stratospheric helium balloon at the height of 29 km, BBC News reported.

In March 2018, the second and largest main parachute was successfully tested in a low-altitude drop test from an altitude of 1.2 km, deployed by a helicopter.

While preliminary assessment showed that the initial steps were completed correctly on this high-altitude test, specialists observed damages to the canopy prior to inflation, similar to a previous test conducted on May 28. As a result, the test module descended under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

Sizes of key components of the ExoMars 2020 mission. The parachutes that will help slow the descent module through the Martian atmosphere are compared in size to London’s ‘Big Ben’. (Photo Credit: ESA)

“It is disappointing that the precautionary design adaptations introduced following the anomalies of the last test have not helped us to pass the second test successfully, but as always we remain focused and are working to understand and correct the flaw in order to launch next year,” said Francois Spoto, ESA’s ExoMars Team Leader.

Experts have recovered all hardware, videos, and recorded telemetries for evaluation, and the ESA is hoping the analysis will reveal the root cause of the anomaly and guide engineers on further modifications that might be required to the parachute system before future tests.

Another high-altitude test is already planned for the first main parachute before the end of the year. The next qualification attempt of the second main parachute is scheduled for early 2020.

The ExoMars mission is scheduled for launch during the July 24-August 13, 2020 window, arriving at Mars in March 2021.

According to BBC News, if ExoMars misses its launch window in 2020, the next opportunity to fly the mission will arrive in 2022, when Mars and Earth will make another close approach.

“We have two remaining test windows. One is in November, the other is in February next year. If those tests are okay then we are on for a flight in July. However, if one of them was to fail, we would not take the risk. Our mission success is the first priority,” Nico Dettmann, human and robotic exploration development projects group leader at ESA, told BBC.

“But at the moment we are confident we will be able to find a fix and implement it in time,” he added.

The rover is currently nearing completion at Airbus Defense and Space, in Stevenage, UK, and will soon begin its environmental test campaign at Airbus Toulouse, France. The flight carrier module comprising the descent module and lander platform will also begin its final round of testing at Thales Alenia Space, Cannes, France.

The rover will be integrated into the spacecraft in early 2020.

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