by Ryan Whitwam
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is one step closer to carrying humans into space today. The agency confirms that all systems performed perfectly during the second ascent abort test, proving that astronauts aboard Orion could be safely wrenched free of a rocket in the event of an emergency.
Launch abort systems are not a new idea, but Orion is a new piece of hardware. NASA needs to make sure the abort system works as intended because it’s the difference between saving and losing the crew when a launch goes wrong. The crew of a Russian Soyuz capsule narrowly averted disaster last year when the MS-10 rocket carrying it spun out of control. The abort system pulled the capsule away from the rocket before it broke apart.
NASA conducted the test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station using a modified Peacekeeper missile obtained from the Air Force. The missile carried the Orion capsule 44,000 feet into the air, reaching a speed of 760 mph. The simulated failure caused the capsule to flip end-over-end before it fired the jettison motor, launching the spacecraft clear of the rocket. The abort system consists of three solid rocket motors: one that jettisons the pod, one to control attitude, and one that pushes Orion clear of the failing rocket.
The entire test was a mere 3 minutes and 13 seconds, but triggering the launch abort took just milliseconds. Orion ejected 12 data recorders after breaking free of the launch vehicle, all of which were recovered within about an hour. NASA will comb through the data as it prepares for future crewed flights, but all signs point to a textbook test. Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich called the test “spectacular.”
Orion will eventually mount atop the Space Launch System (SLS), which should be the most powerful rocket in the world when it’s complete. Orion and the SLS grant NASA access to space beyond low-Earth orbit once more. Orion will carry humans to the moon as part of NASA’s new Artemis Program, a follow-up to Apollo. This time, NASA plans to establish long-term human habitation on and around the moon with the aid of the Gateway station. This will serve as a jumping off point for the exploration of Mars, which may also employ the Orion capsule. An uncrewed lunar orbit test is scheduled for July 2020. The first astronauts could ride Orion in 2023.
Originally published at https://www.extremetech.com on July 3, 2019.