China Lake scientists, ranges contribute to MSL success

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The historic landing of Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, has more in common with the Indian Wells Valley than merely the interest of a highly technical population, according to a press release from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

Because the terminal descent sensor had to have the capability to operate over a large range of altitudes and velocities, different venues and methods were necessary to test it over a five-year period. One of those sites was apparently Echo Towers, part of the SNORT complex at China Lake.

And among the local contributing scientists is Elsa Hennings, chief engineer of the Warfare Systems and Support Division for human systems at China Lake.

Hennings was called on as a subject-matter expert in the testing of the lander’s parachute.

“As this was the largest parachute ever to be used on another planet, and due to the extreme differences between the Martian and Earth atmospheres, the testing of this parachute was much more difficult than it has been in the past,” she said.

“The deployment of the MSL parachute occurs at supersonic speeds and was predicted to demonstrate some very unusual behavior, which we needed to replicate on Earth.”

When anomalies cropped up early in the testing process, Jet Propulsion Laboratory called parachute specialists in to come up with recommendations to address those challenges. “The recommendations we made were implemented, and the rest of the testing went well.”

Hennings also contributed to earlier Mars drones, and performed a similar function on the Mars Exploration Rover.

She also designed the structural-communications tether that attached the lander to the backshell for both the MER program and the Pathfinder. She said the tether was designed to allow the lander to drop about 70 feet below the backshell in order to protect it from the plume of the retrorockets, which are fired prior to release.

“Many other individuals at China Lake were involved in the design, fabrication and testing of the tethers and Decent Rate Limiter for MER and Pathfinder, as well as testing of many of the other subsystems of both spacecraft,” said Hennings.

Testing for future Mars missions are reportedly still being conducted at SNORT. The News Review will continue to report on the China Lake contributions to the space program as they are uncovered.

Story First Published: 2012-08-08