A “new parachute strategy” is in place to let the Rosalind Franklin rover finally leave for Mars in 2022, according to a mission update.
The European Space Agency and partner Roscosmos made the tough call almost exactly a year ago to delay the mission, the latest in the ExoMars series, from a launch in 2020. Missing the launch window meant they lose the chance to arrive at Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover in February, but it was a necessary decision.
What troubled mission managers last March was a series of parachute problems, compounded with the emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic that made testing even more difficult than usual.
But everyone has been hard at work (with safety precautions) in the months since. Recently, ESA finished two balancing tests in Cannes, France, including a composite spacecraft spin test generating an acceleration equivalent to twice Earth’s gravity. They conducted simulated rover operations in Turin, Italy. And on the parachute side, there’s been a lot of progress, the agency said in the update.
ESA asked a second manufacturer to provide canopies for a new high-altitude drop test in May or June this year in Sweden, to make sure everything is working correctly. The new manufacturer is Airborne Systems, the same company that helped get Perseverance to Mars on Feb. 18, and they will assist parachute maker Arescosmo.
Parachute damage problems keep cropping up during testing, happening again in November 2020 — but ESA said the problem is less severe than the tests in 2019, indicating progress. Now there’s a plan to deploy even “stronger and more robust” parachute canopies next time, along with redesigned bags and a new packing procedure that should minimize any tangles during deployment.
Since there’s only one chance to land safely on Mars, ESA plans yet another high-altitude test in Oregon sometime between September and November. A final, optional testing opportunity is scheduled for February or March in Oregon, if needed. In between these drop tests, ESA will use a ground facility to verify any changes to the parachute design.
The agency is being extra-careful as it hasn’t made it to Mars’ surface safely yet; the Schiaparelli test vehicle may have exploded upon impact in 2016, and the Beagle 2 mission failed to phone home after its 2003 attempt.
“High altitude drop tests require complex logistics and strict weather conditions, making them difficult to schedule,” ESA explained. “The ground tests can be repeated on a quick turnaround, buying significantly more time in the test campaign and reducing risk by allowing more tests to be conducted on a short time frame.”
Rosalind Franklin will be a crucial addition to Mars efforts, helping with ongoing searches for signs of life on the Red Planet. NASA and the European Space Agency are also planning a sample return mission as soon as this decade, to get interesting rocks from Mars into high-end laboratories on Earth. But that sample return mission will depend on funding, technical know-how and political will; Rosalind Franklin is likely a crucial piece in proving the next mission can go ahead.