ESA completes the first ExoMars high-altitude parachute drop test

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it has completed the first high-altitude drop test for the ExoMars parachute system. The successful test was completed after delays due to several weeks of bad weather and strong winds. ESA conducted a pair of drop tests in Kiruna, Sweden. The agency reports that the large 15 meter-wide first stage main parachute performed flawlessly at supersonic speeds.

The larger 35-meter wide second-stage parachute did have one instance of minor damage but decelerated the mockup of the spacecraft landing platform as expected. The ExoMars mission includes the Rosalind Franklin Rover and Kazachok surface platform. Mission launch is currently scheduled for September 2022.

It will take ExoMars nine months to reach Mars after launch, and once in orbit, a descent module containing the rover and platform will be released into the Martian atmosphere. It will enter the atmosphere of Mars at 21,000 kilometers per hour. Slowing ExoMars is quite an undertaking requiring a thermal shield and two main parachutes.

Each of those main parachutes has a pilot chute for extraction. Once the spacecraft nears the surface of the Red Planet for touchdown, a retro rocket propulsion system will trigger 20 seconds before touchdown to slow the descent for the final landing. When the 15-meter-wide first stage main parachute opens, the ESA notes that the descent module will still be traveling at supersonic speeds.

When the larger 35-meter-wide second stage main parachute deploys, the lander will be traveling at subsonic speeds. The ESA has been working hard on refining the parachutes following a series of failed drop tests in 2019 and 2020. The design of the parachute system was improved with ground testing. The ESA worked to mitigate any potential risk before the last series of drop tests by purchasing backup parachutes from the US company called Airborne Systems, which is the same company that delivered the parachute system used for the Perseverance rover.