The European Space Agency (ESA) is hoping to launch a new ExoMars mission to the red planet next year, but the future of that mission is in doubt after a second parachute failure. The ESA confirms a recent parachute test here on Earth has failed, making this the second failure in the last few months.
Landing missions on Mars is particularly challenging because of its thin atmosphere. There’s enough atmosphere to cause landers to heat up but not enough to make parachutes highly effective. That’s why the ESA designed a massive 35-meter chute for the new ExoMars mission. NSA, meanwhile, plans to use a rocket sled for the Mars 2020 rover very similar to the one it used for Curiosity.
The test took place high above the ESA Esrange test site in northern Sweden. A lander mockup was dropped from a high-altitude balloon with the same parachute system intended for use on the ExoMars lander, consisting of a smaller 15-meter chute and the 35-meter main chute. According to the ESA, the team observed damage to the parachute that prevented it from inflating all the way. As a result, the lander descended under a small pilot chute that was supposed to deploy the larger ones. This is not the first setback for the ExoMars program. In 2016, a lander crashed on Mars because of a sensor malfunction.
The ExoMars mission, which is a collaboration between the ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos, will deliver an ESA rover to Mars named after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. Russia will handle the launch operations, as well as contributing part of the science payload and the surface platform.
With a second parachute failure now on the books, the ESA says it will spend some time studying what it has learned. It plans to convene a workshop of Mars parachute experts in September to evaluate the current state of the mission. The clock is ticking, though. Mars and Earth will be aligned for a quick journey next summer. That’s the same launch window NASA plans to use for the Mars 2020 rover, and the Chinese space agency is also planning to send a small rover around the same time.
The future of the ExoMars mission will be in doubt if the ESA and Roscosmos can’t fix the lander’s parachutes. The next advantageous alignment of the planets won’t take place until late 2022, and that’s a long time to mothball a complex mission like this.