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See NASA's wild supersonic Mars parachute test unfurl

NASA's Mars 2020 rover will receive a special escort down to the red planet with the help of a supersonic parachute system.

NASA's next Mars rover will hopefully land with the gentleness of a parent setting a baby into a crib. The space agency just tested its Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) with a rocket launch that sent a parachute into the upper atmosphere. The video is stunning.

The test is in preparation for the Mars 2020 mission, which will land a rover on the distant planet. NASA sent the parachute up on Oct. 4 and just released the eye-catching test footage Tuesday. 

The parachute deployed at an altitude of 26 miles (42 kilometers) while at a velocity of 1.8 times the speed of sound. It takes a mere half second for the parachute to inflate.

The video shows the rocket launch from Virginia, the payload separation from the rocket and the deployment of the parachute. Where things get really wild is when we see the slo-mo footage of the release.

The slow-motion shots will be under a lot of scrutiny as researchers try to determine potential stress points for the parachute. "Every frame will be examined closely to look for signs of damage in any of the stitching used to hold the canopy together," says Ian Clark, NASA's technical lead for the test, in the video.

It's not easy to land on the red planet. The history of our attempts to explore Mars is littered with spacecraft failures. Most recently, the European Space Agency's 2016 Schiaparelli lander hit a software glitch and crashed into Mars instead of landing softly on the surface. NASA wants to make sure its newest rover has a welcoming arrival.    

"We not only proved that we could get our payload to the correct altitude and velocity conditions to best mimic a parachute deployment in the Martian atmosphere, but as an added bonus, we got to see our parachute in action as well," says Clark

NASA has used wind tunnels for parachute tests for previous Mars missions. ASPIRE's ability to replicate the conditions of Mars' atmosphere will give the Mars 2020 team more information to work with when finalizing the parachute design and construction.

The payload returned to Earth with a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean where it was recovered for inspection. NASA's next planned ASPIRE test is scheduled for February.

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