The test was carried out to investigate new technology for landing large, heavy spacecraft on Mars.
Unfortunately NASA officials have reported that the parachute failed to operate properly during a test on Monday. Spokeswoman Kimberly Newton said that the parachute deployed but did not inflate, reports the Associated Press. Further details will be provided during a press conference on Tuesday, although video footage appears to show the parachute disintegrating.
Unsuccessful test for NASA’s giant parachute
NASA tested the parachute, which is designed to slow vehicles from supersonic speeds, off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Last year a similar piece of technology also failed to inflate, and scientists were hoping that the redesigned equipment would perform more successfully.
During the test, the vehicle was carried 23 miles into the atmosphere by a giant balloon before booster rockets propelled it to an altitude of 34 miles, where conditions are similar to those of the thin atmosphere on Mars. First of all a doughnut-shaped ring was deployed to slow down the landing vehicle, which is shaped like a flying saucer. Following its deployment, it was hoped that the giant parachute would then slow the vehicle even further.
Repeated failures during testing may mean that the technology is never seen on missions. However the space agency has repeatedly expressed its desire to send manned missions to Mars by the 2030s, and updated landing technology is needed for the larger vehicles that would be required to transport crew and equipment.
Manned missions to Mars require new landing technology
Testing of the parachute is complicated by its size. It measures 30 meters in diameter, which makes it twice as big as the parachute which successfully landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. However impressive that may sound, it is too large to be tested in the wind tunnels which NASA usually uses.
The same basic parachute design has been in use since the Viking landers arrived on Mars in 1976. The test flight carried out this Monday was the second out of three that the space agency plans.
Scientists are presumably hoping that the next test is more successful so that work can continue on sending the first manned mission to Mars.