In this February 2015 photo made available by NASA, the parachute for the InSight mission to Mars is tested inside the world’s largest wind tunnel at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin via AP)
Redmond-based rocket maker Aerojet-Rocketdyne wasn’t the only [Washington State] firm anxiously watching the NASA Mars landing on Monday.
In nearby Bothell, a team at the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems operation sat in front of a live video feed from NASA’s Mission Control, waiting for news about their own piece of the mission — a small but powerful cannon designed to blast out the parachute that helped slow the InSight landing craft as it plunged through the Martian atmosphere.
The so-called Mortar Deployment System is a wastebasket-sized cylindrical device, roughly 18 inches long and 10 inches across, that uses a precisely calibrated explosion to rapidly inflate a huge parachute behind the lander. That high-caliber shove is needed because the Martian atmosphere, at only one-hundredth the density of Earth’s, is so thin that the parachute won’t unfold on its own, said Paul Lichon, director of General Dynamic’s Bothell operation.
And unless the chute deploys fully and precisely on time, Lichon said, the lander’s braking rockets — supplied by Aerojet-Rocketdyne — wouldn’t slow the lander sufficiently to avoid a crash landing.
“This is one of the few systems on the spacecraft that is ‘single-point failure,’” said Lichon. “If our system doesn’t work, the whole mission is lost.”