Testing Parachutes for Mars

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NASA engineers apply kinematics and dynamics to test parachutes designed specifically to help space probes land safely using aerodynamics.
NASA engineers apply kinematics and dynamics to test parachutes (2:58 min.).

How do you test a giant parachute designed to land a rover on Mars? One NASA test involved a helicopter, a one-kilometre-long rope, and a rocket sled!

But why would you need a giant parachute to land a rover on Mars, anyway? One of the biggest challenges of landing a spacecraft is slowing it down as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. This is true on Earth, on Mars, or any other planet with an atmosphere. When the Apollo space capsules returned from the Moon, they reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at over 39 000 km/h. When NASA's InSight Mars lander hit the Martian atmosphere, it was travelling over 19 000 km/h. It had six minutes to slow down before it touched the surface of Mars!

As a spacecraft lands, the aerodynamic forces of drag, gravity, thrust and lift act upon it. Drag is an important way to slow spacecraft down to a safe landing speed. The parachutes’ job is to create drag.  Huge forces are exerted on the parachutes, so they have to be extremely strong to withstand those forces!

The Apollo 17 Command Module returns to Earth on December 19, 1972, suspended from three parachutes
The Apollo 17 Command Module returns to Earth on December 19, 1972, suspended from three parachutes (Source: NASA).

 

Testing parachutes for Mars landers used to be done in special high-speed wind tunnels. But Mars landers have gotten more sophisticated, bigger - and heavier. Force equals mass times acceleration. Bigger landers have more mass and need a greater drag force to slow them down. In other words, bigger machines need bigger parachutes! The parachutes have become too big to test in wind tunnels.  

Testing a parachute for the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) in a wind tunnel
Testing a parachute for the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) in a wind tunnel (Source: NASA).

 

This video shows a new test that NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have devised for these parachutes. This test is part of NASA's Low Density Supersonic Decelerators project, or LDSD. 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • Would you try skydiving? How much confidence would you have in a parachute to slow you enough to land safely?
  • Would you be interested in a career that gave you the opportunity to conduct extreme tests like this? Why or why not?
  • How would you have solved the problem of testing parachutes that are going to be used on another planet?

Connecting and Relating

  • Would you try skydiving? How much confidence would you have in a parachute to slow you enough to land safely?
  • Would you be interested in a career that gave you the opportunity to conduct extreme tests like this? Why or why not?
  • How would you have solved the problem of testing parachutes that are going to be used on another planet?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • How does the testing of this parachute system enhance our ability to explore other planets?
  • What other applications could there be of this new parachute technology on Earth?
  • How has the application of drag in the form of parachutes been used throughout history to slow objects (e.g., drag racing, skydiving, bombs, etc.)?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • How does the testing of this parachute system enhance our ability to explore other planets?
  • What other applications could there be of this new parachute technology on Earth?
  • How has the application of drag in the form of parachutes been used throughout history to slow objects (e.g., drag racing, skydiving, bombs, etc.)?

Exploring Concepts

  • Explain how parachutes are used to induce drag.
  • Senior physics: draw a vector diagram showing the forces in this system (on the parachute, the pulley, etc.).
  • Senior physics: Explain the relationship between the size of a parachute and the mass and velocity of the object that it must decelerate.

Exploring Concepts

  • Explain how parachutes are used to induce drag.
  • Senior physics: draw a vector diagram showing the forces in this system (on the parachute, the pulley, etc.).
  • Senior physics: Explain the relationship between the size of a parachute and the mass and velocity of the object that it must decelerate.

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • Why are failures important in design testing?

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • Why are failures important in design testing?

Teaching Suggestions

  • Problem-Based Learning Opportunity: Have your students design and test a system that will allow an egg to survive a drop from a 50m height. 
    • Where could you safely do such a test?
    • How do you make sure that the device is being dropped from a height of 50m?
    • How can you make sure that the test is conducted fairly and consistently every time?
  • Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Pros and Cons Organizer learning strategy for this video in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Teaching Suggestions

  • Problem-Based Learning Opportunity: Have your students design and test a system that will allow an egg to survive a drop from a 50m height. 
    • Where could you safely do such a test?
    • How do you make sure that the device is being dropped from a height of 50m?
    • How can you make sure that the test is conducted fairly and consistently every time?
  • Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Pros and Cons Organizer learning strategy for this video in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

Testing a Parachute for Mars (2018) 

This video (2:50 min.) explains the ASPIRE Project - new ways NASA has developed to test parachutes for Mars under even more extreme conditions.

Parachute History (2013)

In this Discovery HD video (6:52 min), learn why and how Štefan Banič developed the first parachutes.

Parachute Design 

Want to try making your own parachute? Take a look at this hands-on activity from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Mars 2020 Landing Site: Jezero Crater Flyover (2018)

This animated video (2:13 min.) from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows a flyover of the Martian surface and explains why Mars’ Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide ancient lake-delta system, is the best place for the Mars 2020 rover to land, then find and collect promising samples of the surface.

References