Parachute Blows in the Mars Wind

BY Jenny Marder  April 5, 2013 at 12:30 PM EDT

The parachute for the Mars Science Laboratory mission to Mars opened before launch. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A newly released series of images snapped by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveals that the Curiosity rover’s parachute has been flapping in the thin Martian wind.

Sure, this may seem hardly newsworthy — something to file under the why-should-I-care category — or a no-brainer. Wind moves fabric. Duh.

But it’s notable because scientists didn’t know if the wind on Mars was thick enough or gusty enough to have this effect. The parachute, by the way, is constructed mostly of nylon, with a patch of polyester in its reinforced center. If you remember, it’s what allowed the Curiosity rover to glide slowly down during landing and settle safely onto the Mars surface. Remember this picture?

“Nobody had a prediction on would this thing flap in the wind or not,” said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the MRO’s HIRISE camera. “It’s very thin air. What we can see from these images is it’s not moving all the time, it’s just in episodes. Occasionally there’s a strong gust of wind.”

Scientists do study wind on Mars. They study it to understand the planet’s active sand dunes and how they ebb and flow and evolve over time.

“There have been theories that the wind is so thin, it isn’t fast enough to move the sand,” McEwen said. “But apparently rare high velocity events are more common than previously known.”

It isn’t like the wind is picking the parachute up and plopping it somewhere else, he clarified. It’s mostly fixed in the same spot with the edges moving around.

This could also help explain why the Viking Lander 1 has remained visible on the Mars surface for nearly 40 years, unburied by dust in a dusty region of the planet, McEwen added. It landed on July 20, 1976, the same date — but seven years later — that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.

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Photo credit: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., celebrate the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Tom Kennedy, Rebecca Jacobson, Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.