Planning for failure, NASA tests Orion parachute system
Failing to plan is planning to fail is a staple of modern proverbs. NASA is taking that motto to heart with the latest test of the space agency’s Orion capsule. The latest test involved a full sized, mass accurate mock-up loaded with sensors and computer systems to measure the stresses on the capsule as it landed in the Arizona desert. Unlike past tests, however, this one was designed to test the limits of a parachute failure in the event that a real accident should occur.
The Orion spacecraft is nominally equipped with five parachutes – two drogues and three main chutes. The drogues are designed to keep the capsule falling in the correct orientation as it plows through the Earth’s atmosphere. They also help deploy the three main parachutes, essentially dragging them out of their storage containers when commanded by the onboard computers. The main parachutes reduce the spacecraft’s speed to a gentle-like 20 miles per hour (32.2 km/h).
But what if some of the parachutes fail to deploy correctly? According to a report appearing on Wired.com, that is what this test was all about.
NASA needs to know how well the craft will perform with respect to crew safety should one or more parachutes fail to deploy. To test the problem, engineers took the latest mock-up to the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Riding on a cargo plane, the capsule was taken to 35,000 feet (10.67 km) and dropped to the desert floor far below. Instead of the usual set of parachutes, however, NASA rigged the capsule to deploy only one drogue and two main parachutes.
As seen on a report on The Verge, the landing was a little hard for the capsule. Many of the foam panels were displaced upon impact. The Orion test article itself came to rest upside down. Despite the unusual landing orientation, NASA declared the test a success. Any astronauts aboard would have survived the landing, even if it would not have been the most dignified way to return from a deep space mission.
NASA will continue to analyze the data gathered from the test flight and use it to further Orion’s development. The parachute recovery system has been in tests since 2012 with each successive test adding more successes to the Orion program.
NASA is hoping that testing on both Orion and the planned booster for the crew-rated spacecraft will continue as planned. If so, the first Orion/Space Launch System stack should take to the skies in November 2018. It will not, however, be the first time that one of the vehicles, which has the ability to support crews of up to seven astronauts, has taken to the skies.
In December 2014, a test article version of Orion flew out some 3,600 miles (5,794 km) above our world on Exploration Flight Test 1. It was sent into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, the United States’ most powerful operational booster. After conducting two orbits, Orion returned to Earth, reaching speeds of some 20,000 miles (32,187 km) per hour. While this provided the ultimate test of the vehicle’s heat shield, the parachute system also got a test. Those parachutes performed as advertised with Orion safely splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.