Next year was shaping up to be a big one for Mars rovers. NASA is aiming to launch its Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency is also planning to send off its own ExoMars rover. But the ESA's schedule might be in jeopardy after a series of parachute testing failures.
ESA shared the news Monday of an "unsuccessful high-altitude drop test." The rover, named Rosalind Franklin for the DNA pioneer, is meant to be gently lowered down to Mars with the help of two main parachutes attached to a descent module.
Those two parachutes each have a smaller pilot chute that helps deploy the bigger chutes, one of which would be the largest ever flown on a Mars mission with a diameter of 115 feet (35 meters). That parachute passed a low-altitude drop test in 2018, but a high-altitude drop test for all four parachutes in May didn't work out as planned.
The deployment mechanisms worked properly for the May test, but the main parachute canopies were damaged in the process, ESA said.
The space agency tweaked the parachute design and tried again last week, but once again the parachute canopy suffered damage. The test module descended from a high-altitude helium balloon down to Earth with just the drag of a small pilot chute to slow it down.
ExoMars team leader Francois Soto described the test failure as "disappointing." Mars parachute experts from ESA and NASA will help troubleshoot the issue.
Space missions are notorious for delays and ESA will need to sort out the parachutes very quickly if it hopes to stay on track to launch the rover in mid-2020. ESA is already planning a new main parachute test before the end of the year.
ExoMars is a joint effort between ESA and Roscosmos. The rover is designed to drill into Mars and analyze the soil in search of evidence of life on the dusty planet.
The rover itself is on track for completion soon, but the landing systems will need to work flawlessly before they're given the green light to go all the way to the red planet.