The craziest NASA test ever is this giant supersonic Goldberg machine

NASA is sending new and bigger spaceships to Mars, which means they need bigger supersonic parachutes. So big, in fact, that they don't fit in any wind tunnel anymore, so their engineers had to find new ways to test them. New crazy ways. Really crazy. In fact, it's the craziest test they got so far.

I saw this under a confidentiality agreement when I was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, two years ago, watching the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover. It really blew me away.

Just picture this: Pack the biggest ever supersonic parachute—which is technically called Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator and weights a gazillion pounds on its own—and attach it to a Nighthawk helicopter to take it up to the sky with an instrumentation pack and a one kilometer-long rope—which is insanely heavy and insanely long—hanging from it. At the end of that cable there is a hundred-pound steel bullet. Attached to that bullet is a 400-meter-long nylon fishing line that goes all the way to the ground through rollers, pipes, and a pulley that is attached to a 300 horse power winch—which is always turned on, pulling on that parachute to keep the rope tense at all times—that is on a metal sled with solid fuel rockets, which is mounted on rails many miles long in a military range on the desert.

Needless to say, this is madly complicated to operate, but it works. Here's Michael Meachan—a mechanical engineer at the JPL and the guy who came up with the crazy idea—explaining the whole process.


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