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ESA completes supersonic parachute test
Supersonic parachute test. © ESA / Vorticity

ESA completes supersonic parachute test

The European Space Agency has released rare images of a parachute being deployed at supersonic velocity in a test of crucial technology for future spacecraft landing systems.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released images taken earlier this year of a parachute being deployed at supersonic velocity from a test capsule dropping towards the ground from an altitude of 679km, proving a crucial technology for future spacecraft landing systems.


Planetary landers or reentering spacecraft need to lose their speed rapidly to achieve safe landings, which is where parachutes come in. They have played a crucial role in the success of ESA missions such as ESA’s Atmospheric Entry Demonstrator, the Huygens lander on Saturn’s moon Titan and the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle spaceplane. 


This 1.25m diameter ‘Supersonic Parachute Experiment Ride on Maxus’, or Supermax, flew piggyback on ESA’s Maxus-9 sounding rocket on 7th April, detaching from the launcher after its solid-propellant motor burnt out.


After reaching its maximum 679km altitude, the capsule began falling back under the pull of gravity. It fell at 12 times the speed of sound, undergoing intense aerodynamic heating, before air drag decelerated it to Mach 2 at an altitude of 19km.


At this point the capsule’s parachute was deployed to stabilise it for a soft landing, and allowing its onboard instrumentation and camera footage to be recovered intact.


The experiment was undertaken by UK companies Vorticity Ltd and Fluid Gravity Engineering Ltd under ESA contract.


The data gathered by this test are being added to existing wind tunnel test campaigns of supersonic parachutes to validate newly developed software called the Parachute Engineering Tool (also developed by Vorticity), allowing mission designers to accurately assess the use of parachutes.


This development was supported through ESA’s General Support Technology Programme, which develops promising technologies for space.

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