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Within minutes of welcoming me into his office at JPL in Pasadena, California, Ian Clark has a swatch of ripstop nylon dangling from the corner of his mouth. “I’m going to have to go Hulkmania on this,” he says as he strains to tear the hardy fabric with his teeth. Once he finally manages to shred it, he hands me a fragment so I can examine the fibers that dangle from its edge—the matrix of a modern space parachute, which use ultra-light nylon in lieu of heavy Dacron polyester.
Clark knew next to nothing about parachutes when he started at JPL in 2009. As a doctoral student at Georgia Tech, he’d become an authority on so-called inflatable aerodynamic decelerators—giant inner-tube-like devices that are meant to be placed on the undersides of supersonic spacecraft, and which should theoretically act as brakes when they’re inflated in the atmosphere. (When fully filled with air, they resemble Victorian hoop skirts.) His original marching orders at NASA were to build an inflatable decelerator so effective that it could slow a Mars-bound vehicle to less than the speed of sound in a matter of minutes. Once that goal was reached, a supersonic parachute wouldn’t be necessary; a run-of-the-mill subsonic parachute would suffice to finish the braking job and prepare the spacecraft for landing.
Clark - JPL - Plan - Decelerators - Parachutes
But Clark wasn’t at JPL long until he realized that his plan to use inflatable decelerators instead of supersonic parachutes had been wildly optimistic. “You ran the math on trying to bump the parachute down to subsonic, and the inefficiencies associated with that started to manifest very quickly,” says Clark, a wiry 37-year-old who radiates a cheerful yet manic intensity. “You would need just these enormous inflatable drag devices, so enormous there’s no way they could ever be efficient.” By his second year at NASA,...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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