Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Successfully Completes Difficult Parachute Test

A test version of the Orion spacecraft lands as expected after successfully completing its most difficult parachute test yet. Photo Credit: Rad Sinyak/NASA

As final testing is carried out in preparation for its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), NASA’s Orion team conducted the most complex and difficult test yet of its parachute system. As the spacecraft is subjected to multiple system failure modes, Orion’s parachutes deployed as planned and the craft landed safely. By all accounts made by the space agency – the test was a complete success. 

A test version of the spacecraft was dropped out of a C-17 aircraft over the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The C-17 carried Orion up to a height of approximately 35,000 feet – marking the first parachute test at such an altitude for Orion. Engineers allowed the vehicle to free fall for about ten seconds in order to increase aerodynamic pressure as well as the vehicle’s speed. The free fall also allowed for a more accurate simulation of what the spacecraft would encounter upon returning to Earth.

“We’ve put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way before we begin sending them into space on Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 before the year’s done,” said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. “The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future.”

View of the Orion test module as it exits the C-17. Photo Credit: NASA

View of the Orion test module as it exits the C-17. Photo Credit: NASA

After the free fall period, Orion’s forward bay cover parachutes were deployed, causing the forward bay cover to jettison–a necessary task crucial to the performance of the rest of the system. The craft’s forward bay cover is designed to remain on the vehicle until reentry. Once the chutes are deployed, they slow the vehicle down to speeds ideal for a safe landing. Since the parachutes are located below the forward bay cover, it must be removed for the chutes to deploy properly.

Each parachute goes through a three-stage unfurling process and as part of this test, engineers manipulated one of the main parachutes so it would bypass the second phase of the unfurling process–a procedure known as “reefing”. This test was essential for determining whether-or-not the chute can go from opening a little to fully open without any steps in between and was an important step in showing the system can handle failures that may occur during an actual flight.

Today’s test is the final time the parachute system will be tested in its entirety before being launched into space in December of this year. During the initial flight test, EFT-1, the Orion spacecraft will travel farther into space than any other craft since the Apollo era. It will complete a four hour, two orbit flight and will be traveling at speeds of 20,000 miles per hour when it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. The vehicle will be subject to searing temperatures around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and once it has made it through the atmosphere, will rely on its braking system to land safely.

NASA has tapped United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy to carry out the EFT-1 mission. Photo Credit: Scott Johnson / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has tapped United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy to carry out the EFT-1 mission. Photo Credit: Scott Johnson / SpaceFlight Insider

The parachute system, composed of three massive main parachutes and two drogue parachutes, spans an area almost as large as a football field. Together, the chutes will be charged with slowing the vehicle down to a safe landing speed of approximately 20 miles per hour before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

This August, Orion’s parachute system will undergo another test, this time testing how the vehicle performs with both one main chute and one drogue chute “fail” to open as well as new design features. Orion is capable of landing with only two main chutes and this test will be one of three left to complete to receive final certification for human missions.

Today’s test was deemed a success by the space agency, with the vehicle completing all of the stages of parachute deployment. The tests are necessary as there has been past chute failures. In 2008, the Orion Parachute Test Vehicle (PVT) suffered a failure after a programmer chute failed to deploy. This failure snowballed as it did not allow the vehicle from decelerating properly and prevented proper orientation for drogue chute deployment.

When the drogue chutes deployed, the vehicle was traveling too fast and upside down, resulting in the drogue chutes being immediately ripped off. When the three main chutes were deployed, they were also ripped off. Only one chute remained intact, but was unable to slow the vehicle down. As a result, the test vehicle crashed into the ground, destroying most of the hardware in the process.

NASA has been slowly preparing Orion for its first crewed flight, currently slated to take place in the 2020s. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has been slowly preparing Orion for its first crewed flight, currently slated to take place in the 2020s. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

In 2010, a pallet system failure caused another crash. When the test vehicle is in the C-17, it sits on a pallet, which allows it to slide out of the aircraft and perform the test. During this incident, the pallet failed to separate from the test vehicle, and both the vehicle and the pallet crash landed. NASA even has experience with a parachute failure on a crewed spacecraft – but not on Orion.

On Apollo 15’s return to Earth on August 7, 1971, one of the three main parachutes failed to open. The space agency had prepared then as it is preparing now and no harm befell the crew or its payload.

As for Orion, all subsequent tests, including an important forward bay cover test back in January, have succeeded and the spacecraft is wrapping up final preparations before its historic first test flight. Earlier this month, Orion’s massive heat shield was recently mated to the vehicle. Dubbed the world’s largest heat shield, the single sheet of Avocoat ablator spans some 54 feet (16.5 meters) in diameter and will protect the vehicle from the intense heat of reentry.

On June 10, the crew module was stacked on top of the service module. The duo will undergo a few more tests before December’s launch. Last week, NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, visited Kennedy Space Center to observe Orion’s progress and described the vehicle as “…possibly the most significant human spaceflight milestone this year.”

The Orion spacecraft will be responsible for transporting humans into deep space and is slated to launch in December atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37.

Video courtesy of NASA


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