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NASA Drops Heat Shield Prototype from Helicopter, There's a Good Reason for It

The space agency likes to slam things to the ground from time to time – all in the name of science, of course. NASA engineers successfully completed a series of drop tests at the Utah Test and Training Range for the Mars Sample Return program. These tests will help scientists design an entry system that will safely return samples from the Red Planet back to Earth for detailed examination.
NASA tests aeroshell design 6 photos
NASA tests aeroshell designNASA tests aeroshell designNASA tests aeroshell designNASA tests aeroshell designNASA tests aeroshell design
NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars last year, in February, to search for ancient microbial life. The rover has collected seven samples so far from the surface of the Red Planet and has another 36 other empty sample tubes inside its belly that must be filled with pieces from another world.

The Mars Sample Return mission seeks to return select tubes to Earth so that scientists can examine them using modern lab equipment that would be way too large to send to Mars. To make sure that each precious sample safely arrives on our planet, engineers must make a durable aeroshell for the spacecraft that will land inside the Utah Test and Training Range.

The recent drop test is how NASA is making sure that the model can hold up during final descent and landing. This is part of a series of tests conducted last year that involved a smaller and less detailed example.

It's a full-scale Manufacturing Demonstration Unit (MDU) that spans 4.1 ft (1.25 meters) wide and uses materials similar to those used in the actual mission's entry system. The MDU was dropped from a helicopter at an altitude of 1,200 ft (366 meters) and performed accordingly.

"The MDU was very stable during descent - it didn't wobble around a lot, and it landed successfully, in the sense that there was no structural damage and it survived impact as expected," said Jim Corliss, Mars Sample Return Earth Entry System chief engineer.

This test, along with others scheduled for later this year, will help researchers verify and improve the performance of the entry system for the Mars Sample Return mission.

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