ESA performs heat sterilisation test of Exomars parachute

A dry heater steriliser has been used in a bioburden control test ahead of the flight model chute’s arrival

Oven is part of a 35 sqm ISO Class 1 cleanroom. Copyright ESA–M. Cowan

The European Space Agency (ESA), has revealed details of a sterilisation test. The move was needed to finalise the procedures ahead of the flight model chute’s arrival.

Mars is a potential abode of past and perhaps even present-day life. Accordingly, international planetary protection regulations require any mission sent to the Red Planet to undergo rigorous sterilisation, to prevent terrestrial microbes from piggybacking their way there.

The Lab’s Alan Dowson explained: “This is the ‘qualification model’ of the 35-m diameter main parachute for ExoMars 2020, basically a test version which allows us to finalise our sterilisation procedures ahead of the flight model chute’s arrival."

Dowson said the test version has been threaded with thermal sensors, allowing technicians to see how long it takes to reach the required sterilisation temperature in all parts of the folded parachute, even in the hardest to heat points.

"Our target was to sterilise at 125 °C for 35 hours and 26 minutes, and the oven took about 44 hours to reach that temperature,” he said.

The oven is part of the Lab’s 35 sqm ISO Class 1 cleanroom, one of the facilities in Europe.

HVAC system

All the cleanroom’s air passes through a two-stage filter system. Anyone entering the chamber has to gown up in a much more rigorous way than a hospital surgeon. Staff also pass through an air shower to remove any remaining contaminants.

Dowson explained: “If you imagine our cleanroom as being as big as the entire Earth’s atmosphere, then its allowable contamination would be equal to a single hot air balloon. Our ISO 1 rating means we have less than 10 dust particles measuring a tenth of one-millionth of a metre in diameter per cubic metre of air.”

Sterilisation process

The parachute, made of mostly nylon and Kevlar, was packed into an 80 cm diameter donut-shaped unit. It was delivered by Italy’s Arescosmo.

This qualification model will now be sent back there for testing, to ensure this sterilisation process causes no change to the parachute’s material properties.

Dowson said ESA will receive the parachute flight model later this spring for the same sterilisation process. The unit will be "identical to this version", except without any thermal sensors.

ExoMars’s smaller first stage 15-metre diameter parachute has already gone through sterilisation using the oven.

The parachute opens during initial, supersonic atmospheric entry. The second parachute is the larger chute opening once the mission has been slowed to subsonic velocity.

The Lab has also tackled a variety of ExoMars instruments and subsystems, but this second stage subsonic parachute is the single largest item to be sterilised.

The sterilisation process aims to reduce the overall mission ‘bioburden’ to a 10 thousandth of its original level.

Companies