Once in position, the vehicle inflated a doughnut-shaped air brake to increase its surface area and thus the amount of energy that could be dissipated by frictional heating during the fall through the atmosphere.
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That part of the test went better than expected, lead researcher Ian Clark, also with JPL, told reporters.
The structure inflated quickly and uniformly and managed to maintain its 20-foot diameter shape with only about 0.8 inches of deflection, which for an inflated structure is "pretty remarkable," Clark said.
Problems began with the deployment of a supersonic parachute, which was quickly torn apart as it attempted to inflate while moving at 2,500 mph.
"We've leaned that we have more to learn about supersonic parachute inflation," Clark said. "There's a lot of physics to this problem that we're now getting new insights into."
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For example, engineers now know that the parachute's shape is more important than originally thought.