NASA wraps up Orion parachute tests
On Wednesday, Jan. 13, NASA engineers completed the testing program of the Orion spacecraft’s parachute system with the seventh, and final development test. Plummeting out of the Arizona skies from a C-17 aircraft, the test article descended out of the cargo bay – to the deserts around the Yuma Proving Ground some 30,000 feet below.
The test article was not like the Orion spacecraft itself, rather it was a “dart-shaped” test article with a very specific purpose. That being, to test the parachutes under faster-than-normal descent conditions. More went into the test than just a cleverly-designed test vehicle however.
A new, lighter-weight suspension line material was selected for the parachutes. According to a release issued by the space agency, this helped to save in terms of the ever-critical element of mass.
“The completion of this last development test of the parachute system gives us a high degree of confidence that we’ll be successful in certifying the system with the remaining qualification tests for flights with astronauts,” said C.J. Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system. “During our development series, we’ve tested all kinds of failure scenarios and extreme descent conditions to refine the design and ensure Orion’s parachutes will work in a variety of circumstances. We’ll verify the system is sound during our qualification tests.”
As noted, due to its shape, the test article descended a bit faster to the surface than what the spacecraft is expected to encounter during a normal mission. In so doing, the test helped to confirm that the system should still operate under more extreme conditions than those Orion is anticipated to encounter – providing crews with wider safety margins.
With the successful completion of the development parachute tests, NASA engineers will now work to evaluate any modifications that need to be made before qualification tests can begin.
If everything goes according to plan, NASA engineers will begin qualifying the parachutes for crewed missions as soon as this July. Some eight drop tests should take place over the course of three years.
The U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds were selected for these tests due to the existing infrastructure and systems located at the facility, which encompasses more than 1,307 square miles.
The site also allows engineers to collect still photos as well as video from chase planes. This critical data is then reviewed to determine how well the parachutes various components worked. While a parachute might seem a relatively straight-forward system – it is comprised of many individual pieces including mortars, lines, the parachutes themselves – and more.
While works of fiction have all sort of interesting technologies to return crews from destinations from on orbit and beyond, the simple truth is, at present, there are no transporters or other exotic technologies to ferry crews through the fires of reentry. In fact, with the exception of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, all current crew-rated spacecraft are based off of capsule designs.
While the public might only see the final 3 parachutes, which lower Orion to the ground at a speed of about 20 miles per hour, there are some 11 parachutes in total that comprise the system. They are deployed in a precise ballet starting when the Orion spacecraft is traveling at speeds greater than 300 miles per hour.
The carefully-choreographed chain of events begins with three parachutes pulling off Orion’s forward bay cover, which protects the top of the spacecraft’s crew module. As noted by NASA, the bay cover shields the vehicle from the extreme temperatures it will encounter upon reentry.
When one imagines parachutes, one normally sees thin, almost diaphanous material. That is not how they are like when packed into Orion however. According to NASA, when crammed into the top of the spacecraft – the parachutes have the density of “oak wood.” Once deployed? The parachutes spread out to cover nearly the size of a football field.
At this point, two drogue parachutes are deployed which will slow and steady the spacecraft. From there, three pilot parachutes extract the familiar three orange-and-white mains that have been ingrained in the public’s imagination since the Apollo Moonshots. These lower Orion the final 8,000 feet (2,438 kilometers) to the ground.
At present, the system has only been used on an actual mission once, Exploration Flight Test 1, in December of 2014. The next time that Orion is planned to take to the skies is the late 2018 Exploration Mission 1 – which should be the first flight of NASA’s new super heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.