The Mars Science Lab, the pricey, SUV-sized next-generation rover, will rush through the Red Planet’s atmosphere at twice the speed of sound when it approaches in 2010, and engineers are now hard at work testing the parachute that will slow it down.

Such tests might not sound all that exciting, given that this rover is going to be loaded with high-tech gear, including the equipment necessary to identify, gather and then analyze interesting materials on-board. But they’re absolutely critical, since the billion-dollar rover needs a soft landing, and won’t have a chance to use any of those cool tools if it doesn’t touch down properly.

Among other things, engineers are currently testing how the chute will actually deploy. Recently they tried out two different ways of packing the material, then fired sample chutes out to see if either strategy produced any damage. All four tests were successful. There’s still plenty of time for analysis: The final parachute design won’t be selected until 2009.

When it actually descends towards the surface, the chutes will provide the initial deceleration, but the craft will also be slowed by its own rockets.