Massive 115-foot parachutes that will deliver UK’s first ever Mars rover

UK's first ever Mars rover successfully tested

The UK build Rosalind Franklin rover is a step closer to landing on the surface of the Red Planet after parachute tests in the Oregon desert proved a success. 

A pair of parachutes – each with a diameter of 115ft – will be used to slow the UK’s first ever Mars rover as it lands on the Red Planet some time in 2023.

This was a full scale high altitude drop test of the parachutes, falling from 18 miles above the desert in Oregon and ‘worked as expected,’ according to the team. 

The rover was due to launch earlier this year – alongside missions from the US, China and the United Arab Emirates – but delays with testing as a result of coronavirus restrictions led the European Space Agency to postpone the launch.

There are still more tests to complete before the new launch date in September 2022 that would see the rover arrive on Mars in early 2023 but this is a ‘major milestone’. 

Rosalind Franklin is one of three Martian rovers either on their way to the Red Planet, or due to launch in the next two years – the others are NASA’s Perseverance and China’s Tianwen-1 – both launched this summer and due to arrive in February 2021. 

Once the Rosalind Franklin reaches Mars in 2023, a six-minute sequence will see a descent module deploy two parachutes to quickly slow it down ahead of its landing. 

Atmospheric drag will slow the module from around 13,048mph to 1,056mph – at which point the first parachute will be deployed – then 20 seconds later at 248mph the second parachute will open.

When the module is just over half a mile above ground, the braking engines will kick into gear and safely deliver it to the planet’s surface.

The complete parachute descent system needs testing and verifying on Earth to ensure everything goes smoothly – but can only be done via high-altitude drop tests to replicate the conditions of Mars’ low atmospheric pressure.

On November 9, a team of scientists tested the system over Oregon by sending a vehicle up 18 miles using a stratospheric balloon – then dropping it. 

The tests went as scientists in the mission had expected, with the test vehicle landing safely and parachutes recovered.

There was minor canopy damage on the two parachutes, occurring at the onset of inflation but that wouldn’t be a problem for the actual mission.

Rosalind Franklin – a joint Europe and Russia mission – is due for launch in 2022, and the mission will try to detect life, past or present, on Mars.

Completion of the parachute test marks a critical milestone for the rover, which was built in Stevenage by Airbus, and the team will now analyse test data to determine further improvements for the next tests.

ExoMars programme team leader Francois Spoto said: ‘Landing on Mars is extremely difficult, with no room for error,’ adding that this was a good step forward.

The parachute is 115ft wide, made of a nylon fabric fully deployed will stretch out to almost 300ft between the top of the parachute and the lander – the chute will be ‘dragged out of its bag’ at more than 100 miles per hour. 

That is why getting it right on Earth is so important – it’s not something that can be ‘fixed’ if it goes wrong 90 million miles away on Mars. 

Spoto said that while the latest tests have been a success, it still wasn’t the ‘perfect outcome’ they were hoping to achieve – so will continue tweaking and testing.

‘Therefore, we will use the extensive test data we have acquired to refine our approach, plan further tests and keep on track for our launch in September 2022.’


The camera system, called Pan-Cam, was designed by engineers at University College London.

It perches atop the rover’s high mast and is fitted with sensors that scan the planet’s surface in search of minerals or water. 

Once it identifies an area, it will travel towards it at 47 inches an hour, then drill down to take a biopsy of the land. 

The samples will then be stored into a self-contained laboratory on the rover, where it’ll be crushed and examined. 

UK company Vorticity Ltd is technical consultant for the parachute system and is responsible for the high altitude drop tests of the parachutes.

It designed and manufactured the parachute test vehicles and then performed the test along with their US subcontractor, Near Space Corporation.

John Underwood, principal engineer at Vorticity, said: ‘This is an enormously challenging programme involving the development of the largest parachute ever sent to Mars.

115 ft diameter parachutes used to slow the UK’s first ever Mars Rover

News Source: Daily Mail

Written by Nicky Wicky

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