Historic wind tunnel facility is testing NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle rocket


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A scale model of the Mars Ascent Vehicle is loaded into the Trisonic Wind Tunnel at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for testing by wind tunnel test engineer Sam Schmitz. The 14 by 14-inch tunnel has been used to test launch vehicle configurations for Artemis, Redstone, Jupiter-C, Saturn and others. Credit: NASA/Jonathan Deal

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A scale model of the Mars Ascent Vehicle is loaded into the Trisonic Wind Tunnel at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for testing by wind tunnel test engineer Sam Schmitz. The 14 by 14-inch tunnel has been used to test launch vehicle configurations for Artemis, Redstone, Jupiter-C, Saturn and others. Credit: NASA/Jonathan Deal

The MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) team recently completed wind tunnel testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in a facility that has been a key part of NASA missions since the Apollo program.

The same facility that provided valuable testing for NASA missions to low-Earth orbit and the Moon is now helping the agency prepare for the first rocket launch from Mars. The MAV is a key part of the joint plan between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) to return scientifically selected Martian samples to Earth in the early 2030s.

The test took place July 10–15 and allowed the team to gather aeroacoustic data using a 3D-printed scale model to help understand the dynamics of the MAV’s design.


A scale model of the Mars Ascent Vehicle is tested in the trisonic wind tunnel at Marshall. The test section of the tunnel is only 14 inches high and wide, but can achieve wind speeds of up to Mach 5. Credit: NASA

“With these successful tests, we are improving our understanding of MAV aerodynamics, integrated performance, controllability and vehicle loading,” said Steve Gaddis, MAV project manager. “We will use the results to inform our design and make necessary improvements to the robust MAV needed to deliver Mars rock samples to orbit.”

Marshall’s wind tunnel’s test section is only 24 inches long and 14 inches in height and width. However, it can achieve supersonic speeds of up to Mach 5 (about 3,800 mph) and has a testbed of iconic rockets including Redstone, Jupiter-C and Saturn, as well as Space Shuttle and SLS (Space Launch System) designs. Has a long history. ,


This illustration shows NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) in powered flight. The MAV will carry tubes containing Martian rock and soil samples to Mars orbit, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft will encase them in a highly secure containment capsule and deliver them to Earth. Credit: NASA

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This illustration shows NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) in powered flight. The MAV will carry tubes containing Martian rock and soil samples to Mars orbit, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft will encase them in a highly secure containment capsule and deliver them to Earth. Credit: NASA

MAV aeroacoustics chief Anne Katherine Barnes, who served as co-lead for the July test campaign, said the team tested the scale model at multiple angles inside the wind tunnel to see how air flow would affect the MAV. How can it affect the structure? Barnes compared it to turbulence in an airplane.

“We’re looking for areas with turbulent flow for launch vehicles,” he said. “We’re looking for large areas of shock fluctuations and pressure fluctuations that could cause a structural response.”

The team will use data from the July test campaign and other analyzes to better predict the environments the MAV will encounter as it becomes the first vehicle to launch from the surface of another planet.

The MAV supports the planned Mars Sample Return Mission, which will bring scientifically selected samples to Earth for study using the most sophisticated instruments worldwide. This strategic partnership with ESA is developing technology and preliminary designs for missions that will accomplish the first-ever return of samples from another planet. Samples currently being collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover while exploring ancient river deltas have the potential to reveal the early development of Mars, including the possibility of ancient microbial life.

Managed at Marshall, the MAV will launch from Earth aboard a sample recovery lander for a two-year journey to Mars. It will remain on the surface of Mars for about a year receiving samples collected by Perseverance.

After the sample transfer arm on the lander loads the samples into a container on the rocket, the MAV will launch from Mars into orbit around the planet, and release the sample container for the ESA-developed Earth Return Orbiter to capture.

The samples are targeted to be brought to Earth in the early 2030s. The Mars Sample Return Program is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.


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