NASA conducted a failure test of the Orion spacecraft’s parachute design at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on Wednesday, July 24. The spacecraft was dropped out of a C-17 aircraft at 35,000 feet. The test was held to prove that Orion can be safely returned to Earth if one of the spacecraft’s three parachutes were to fail.
Wednesday’s test marked the 10th in a series of tests meant to validate Orion’s parachute system. The test was the highest altitude to date.
During the test, one of Orion’s three parachutes was purposely cut away early. This meant that the spacecraft would be forced to rely on the remaining two. Wednesday’s test in some ways hearkened back to an earlier era in spacecraft development as, according to NASA, it was the highest-altitude test of a human-rated spacecraft parachute since Apollo.
Video courtesy of NASA
Prior to today, the capsule was dropped from 25,000 feet, with the parachutes opened at 22,000 feet. Higher is considered better by the space agency, as next year the spacecraft and its parachutes will be put to the test during Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1).
“In terms of height, today’s test was very similar to what you’d see during EFT-1 and later missions. The reason we wanted to increase the drop altitude to 35,000 feet is, Orion’s parachute system is intended to activate at about 25,000 feet, said Brandi Dean, a spokesperson with NASA. “When we initially drop the capsule, it takes a few minutes for it to get into the right configuration for the parachutes to deploy. So when we were dropping from 25,000 feet, by the time it got into the right configuration, it was a few thousand feet below that. Dropping from 35,000 feet lets us start the sequence right on target.”
During EFT-1, an Orion spacecraft will travel out some 3,600 miles and then return home. Crashing through the atmosphere at approximately 20,000 mph will serve to validate the spacecraft’s heatshield. Other elements that will be tested during this mission include the avionics and flight control systems. In essence, EFT-1 can be compared to the 1967 Apollo 4 mission.
“The closer we can get to actual flight conditions, the more confidence we gain in the system,” said Chris Johnson, project manager for the Orion capsule parachute assembly system. “What we saw today—other than the failures we put in on purpose—is very similar to what Orion will look like coming back during Exploration Flight Test-1′s Earth entry next year.”
Video courtesy of NASA
According to NASA, during its return from space, Orion’s parachute system will begin deploying approximately 25,000 feet above the ground. The space agency is working to validate the design to ensure maximum safety standards are in place for the crews that will one day stake their lives on the spacecraft’s designs.
While NASA already has data about a similar possible failure, this test demonstrated what might occur should one parachute pull away during descent, in terms of how the other two parachutes would react. During the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon, a somewhat similar failure occurred when one of the two parachutes failed as the spacecraft headed toward splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
The rationale behind today’s test was explained by one of the engineers working on the project.
“We wanted to know what would happen if a cable got hooked around a sharp edge and snapped off when the parachutes deployed,” said Stu McClung, Orion’s landing and recovery system manager. “We don’t think that would ever happen, but if it did, would it cause other failures? We want to know everything that could possibly go wrong, so that we can fix it before it does.”
These tests, along with numerous other milestones, are being conducted and met to ensure that Orion is safe to carry astronauts to orbit. If everything proceeds according to plan, after the 2014 mission Orion will ride the Space Launch System booster in 2017 (unmanned). The SLS/Orion combo will carry a crew for the first time sometime in 2021. President Obama has tapped the duo to fly astronauts to an asteroid rendezvous mission in 2021-2022. However, Congress wants the pair to be used to construct a lunar outpost.
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