The European Space Agency (ESA), working in conjunction with Russia’s space agency, has successfully completed a major parachute test, one that would ensure its rover and surface science platform, set to launch as the second part of its ExoMars mission, reach the Red Planet safely.

The mission, slated to launch in 2020, will take the vehicle and science platform to the Martian orbit and deploy the two on a descent module to fall and soft-land on the planet’s surface. However, in order to ensure the whole thing pans out as expected, the agency needs to test the parachutes designed to slow the module on its way down.

With that idea, ESA started a series of simulated tests, the first of which has been conducted successfully in sub-zero conditions prevailing in Kiruna, Sweden. During this test, a payload weighing around 500kg was attached to two parachutes – a smaller pilot chute and a 115-feet main parachute, the largest ever to fly on a Mars mission.

The whole system, along with its 3-mile cord, was packed in a canister and taken up to an altitude of 4,000 feet on a helicopter. From there, the payload was dropped.

During the fall, the smaller parachute inflated first and some 12 seconds later, the second chute – the target of the test – came into action, bringing the load safely to the ground. The entire trial took some two and a half minutes and was captured on a bunch of GoPros integrated with the payload.

“The successful deployment of our large ExoMars parachute using a smaller pilot chute and its subsequent stable descent without damage is a major milestone for the project,” ESA’s Thierry Blancquaert, said in a statement.

“It was a very exciting moment to see this giant parachute unfurl and deliver the test module to the snowy surface in Kiruna, and we’re looking forward to assessing the full parachute descent sequence in the upcoming high-altitude tests”. This would involve releasing the payload from a much higher stratospheric point (about 30km above ground) where the atmospheric pressure is similar to that of Mars.

Other tests would revolve around observing the complete deployment sequence of the parachute system, which would include two main parachutes, each with a smaller chute. This, as ESA says, would bear the weight of the rover and science platform sitting in the descent module.

The space agency is giving special attention to the parachute deployment sequence as the first part of the mission suffered a major setback in 2016. The mission aimed at sending an orbiter and lander to Mars but the landing craft couldn’t manage to bear the impact of supersonic forces during its descent and crashed into the planet’s crust.

ExoMars_parachute_inflation The deployment of the large 35 m-wide parachute of the upcoming ExoMars mission was tested in a low-altitude drop test earlier this month. The image captures the inflated ring-slot parachute with the drop test vehicle suspended underneath. Photo: ESA/I.Barel