Orion mission update for October 2016
Within the past two months, the idea of a humans setting foot on Mars within the next 15 years has never seemed more possible. At the end of September, Elon Musk and SpaceX revealed their plan to make humans a “multiplanetary species” by the 2020s. This set the stage for scientists and engineers to continue to develop the technologies needed to get to the Red Planet. Then, on Oct. 11, President Obama made the goal of getting humans to Mars by the 2030s clear. With a call for a greater leap than anyone has ever made, eyes are on the Orion capsule.
As of now, the Orion capsule aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) could be the first mode of transport for humans to travel past the Moon. This endeavor would mark the farthest that humans have ever been able to travel into space. Though landing on Mars is still many years away, the next Orion test flight of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) should show that the capabilities exist. Just last month, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center received the heat shield for Orion, and they have also begun to address the issue with long-term radiation exposure. But what other progress has the Orion capsule undergone this last month?
Beginning in late September, NASA began a series of tests for the Orion capsule. A dart-shaped test article was dropped over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona, to test the parachutes that the actual capsule will be equipped with. Like the Apollo capsule, Orion will descend back to Earth with the help of these parachutes.
The remaining tests were to be conducted in October using an Orion-shaped test article dropped from 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The parachute mechanism boasts three parachutes to slow the capsule down. If testing continues to produce favorable results, the parachutes will be integrated into the Orion capsule at Kennedy Space Center by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, at NASA’s Plum Brook Station (part of Glenn Research Center) in Sandusky, Ohio, a test version of the Orion capsule is undergoing vibration testing. Though seemingly entertaining, vibration testing for anything being rocketed into space is essential. Since the SLS is designed to produce more than 8 million lbf (35.6 MN) of thrust during launch, shaking is an eminent risk.
Testing how the test capsule responds to vibration levels ranging from 2.5 Hz to 100 Hz will allow engineers to determine if further support is needed for the structure or if it is ready to sustain the thrust of launch. Once vibrations testing is completed and the capsule has passed, it will move onto a pyrotechnics test to simulate Orion’s separation from the SLS rocket.
With the focus being on the Orion capsule thus far, what kind of tests has NASA’s largest rocket undergone? NASA, in partnership with Orbital ATK and Boeing, is well underway with the SLS testing. Orbital ATK finished its tests for the rocket booster of the SLS, while Boeing completed tests on the liquid hydrogen tanks. With the hardware of the SLS passing all qualification testing, the last remaining step is the integration phase.
Both the SLS and the Orion capsule continue to remain on track for the scheduled launch date of EM-1 in September 2018.
Video Courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center
Mackenzie Kane is currently working towards receiving her Bachelors degree in Planetary Sciences and Physics at the Florida Institute of Technology. For the past several years, Kane's area of active research has been with NASA's Kepler Space Telescope mission and its search for extrasolar planets. Kane has a deep love of learning about the mysteries that space holds through the ever-growing technology that is launched into orbit. My goal upon graduation is to continue writing about the exciting research and technology furthering our presence in space and delivering it to the public in easily accessible ways. Kane was accepted as the second intern from Florida Tech to write for SpaceFlight Insider and our outlet will now work to provide her with access and experience.