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Heathcoat Fabrics delivers a soft landing on Mars

Swatches | May 1, 2021 | By:

The supersonic parachute that landed NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars in February undergoes testing in a wind tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames.

When the Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars on Feb. 18, NASA engineers and space enthusiasts around the world celebrated—along with the fabric engineers and production staff at Heathcoat Fabrics Ltd. in Tiverton, U.K., who were responsible for developing and producing the fabric for the mission’s parachute. 

Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, there is an 11-minute delay in any communications. As a result, Perseverance hit the planet’s atmosphere without any outside guidance, relying only on autonomous systems. And because the planet’s atmosphere is incredibly thin, it offers little resistance, barely slowing down the rover. 

This annotated image was taken by a parachute-up-look camera aboard the protective back shell of NASA’s Perseverance rover during its descent toward Mars. Using binary code, two messages were encoded in the neutral white and international-orange parachute gores (the sections that make up the canopy’s hemispherical shape). The inner portion spells out “DARE MIGHTY THINGS,” with each word located on its own ring of gores. The outer band of the canopy provides GPS coordinates for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where the rover was built and the project is managed. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Just four minutes after entering the atmosphere, and still traveling at about 12,500 miles per hour, the rover deployed the parachute. According to NASA, in the thin atmosphere, the parachute slows the vehicle to about 200 miles per hour. The impact shock of “slamming on the brakes” at hypersonic speeds is incredible, with the single parachute achieving a 98.4 percent reduction in speed. 

Heathcoat engineers were charged with creating a material that could withstand huge extremes of temperature along with the force of a supersonic deployment, according to a press release from Heathcoat. “Mars 2020 is carrying the heaviest payload yet to the surface of Mars, and like all our prior Mars missions, we only have one parachute, and it has to work,” says John McNamee, NASA Mars 2020 project manager. 

The camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was able to capture this image of the final location of the parachute that helped slow down NASA’s Perseverance rover during its landing on the surface of Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

The company’s ultra-lightweight DecelAir parachute fabric is comprised of Heathcoat Advanced Yarns® and is manufactured using customized weaving and specialized fabric finishing processes. After high-speed weaving, washing and coloration, the fabric is processed with a special finish to aid rapid deployment followed by meticulous visual inspection of every centimeter of the fabric. The fabric is then tested to ensure that it meets all of NASA’s exacting requirements. 

“It is an incredibly emotional moment, when you know that millions of people around the world are holding their breath, waiting for news of a successful touchdown, and that part of that success is down to the efforts of our fantastic team here in Tiverton,” says Richard Crane, Heathcoat’s technical director.

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