Successful Orion test brings NASA closer to Moon, Mars missions

Successful Orion test brings NASA closer to Moon, Mars missions
Image by Aynur Zakirov from Pixabay

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said on 2 July that it had carried out a successful test of the Orion spacecraft’s launch abort system, which it claimed can “outrun a speeding rocket and pull astronauts to safety during an emergency during launch”.

During the three minute test – called Ascent Abort-2 – a test version of the Orion crew module launched at 7 am EDT from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a modified Peacekeeper missile that was procured through the US Air Force and built by Northrop Grumman.

The test spacecraft travelled to an altitude of approximately six miles where it experienced “high stress aerodynamic conditions expected during ascent”, the agency said. The abort sequence was subsequently triggered and the abort motor fired within milliseconds to pull the crew module away from the rocket.

This intentionally caused its “attitude motor” to flip the capsule end-over-end to properly orient it and then jettison the fired motor, releasing the crew module for “splashdown” in the Atlantic Ocean”, testing the systems ability to correctly function under such conditions.

NASA said that a team is now collecting 12 data recorders that were ejected during the test capsule’s descent. The information from these recorders will “provide insight into the abort system’s performance”.

The abort structure is shaped like a tower and consists of two parts: the “fairing assembly”, a shell made from a lightweight, composite material to protect the capsule from heat, sound and air flow; and the launch abort tower. The system is built specifically for deep space missions and to ride on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

NASA said it had accelerated the test schedule and lowered its costs by simplifying the test spacecraft, and eliminating parachutes and other related systems. It had already qualified the parachute system for crewed flights through a series of development and qualification tests completed at the end of 2018.

The agency called the test a “milestone” in the agency’s preparation for its series of “Artemis” missions to the Moon – named after the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology – that are intended to lead to astronaut missions to Mars.

The Orion spacecraft is intended for Artemis 1, the first un-crewed mission with the SLS rocket – an integrated system traveling thousands of miles beyond the Moon. Artemis 2 will be the first mission with astronauts.

Technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida are preparing to attach the Orion crew and service modules ahead of testing at the agency’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, later this year.

According to NASA, the agency recently reached “major milestones” for the SLS rocket as their assembled four of the five parts that will make up the “massive core stage” that will launch Artemis 1 and delivered four engines to be integrated into the core stage, along with the engine section, this summer.

When completed, the entire core stage will be the largest rocket stage NASA has built since manufacturing the Saturn V stages for NASA’s Apollo lunar missions in the 1960s, the agency said. Alongside the SLS and Gateway, Orion is part of the “backbone” of NASA’s deep space exploration program,  that will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024.

“We’re building the most powerful rocket in the world to send astronauts to the Moon in the Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions,” Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

“With this exploration system designed to safely carry humans farther into space than ever before, we’ll also have an equally powerful launch abort system that will pull the crew away if there is a problem with the rocket during the early portion of ascent,” he added.

“Launching into space is one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of going to the Moon,” Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, said.

“This test mimicked some of the most challenging conditions Orion will ever face should an emergency develop during the ascent phase of flight,” he added. “Today, the team demonstrated our abort capabilities under these demanding conditions and put us one huge step closer to the first Artemis flight carrying people to the Moon.”

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