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Thursday, June 11, 2009

NASA Builds World's Largest Space Parachute for Martian Landing

To survive the thin Martian atmosphere, the 2000-plus-lb. Mars Science Laboratory rover will depend on the largest space parachute ever built. Here’s how NASA’s next chute will work.

Parachute Diameter: 52 feet. (Photograph by NASA).

When the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover lands on Mars in 2012, it will face a unique obstacle: With an Earth weight of nearly a ton (compared to about 400 pounds for previous Mars rovers) and a Mars weight of about 750 pounds, it is too massive for any existing space parachute. So to cushion its fall through the thin Martian atmosphere (which is less than 1 percent as dense as Earth’s), NASA engineers had to come up with something really big. The new parachute opens to a diameter of 52 feet, making it twice the size of any parachute ever flown beyond Earth.

To test the parachute, which was built by Pioneer Aerospace, NASA brought it into the world’s largest wind tunnel, located at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The parachute passed flight-qualification testing in April, and is now ready for the rover’s 2011 launch date.

• The parachute is designed to survive deployment in the Martian atmosphere at Mach 2.2, where it will generate 65,000 pounds of drag.
• The wind tunnel used to test the parachute is 80 feet tall and 120 feet wide, big enough to house a Boeing 737. It is part of the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex, operated by the U.S. Air Force.
• A nylon and polyester composition keeps the parachute’s total weight down to just 120 pounds.
• The parachute is held by 80 suspension lines, each 150 feet long. The parachute design—where there is a band of material, open space and a mushroom cap—is called a disk-gap-band.

Mars Parachute Photo Gallery


Reader Comments (1)
1. RE: NASA Builds World's Largest Space Parachute for Martian Landing
Hey I know that wind tunnel! I've been in it! Largest wind tunnel in the world. Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. It's like a mile away from me.