NASA touted positive results after dropping a full-scale engineering model of its next-gen spacecraft Orion into the Arizona desert from 35,000 feet in a staged test simulating the failure of two parachutes.
“Stuck the landing!” NASA tweeted at 8:38 PDT. “Orion’s riskiest test a success!”
An earlier Twitter posted noted the testing began at “dawn’s earliest light” on Aug. 26.
Orion, which features a total of 11 parachutes, is undergoing a critical design review ahead of its planned manned missions. Designed to carry astronauts on deep-space missions to Mars or beyond, it will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System.
Orion already has flown some 3,600 space miles in an unmanned test mission staged last year and will travel into lunar orbit beyond the far side of the moon in its next mission, penciled in for November 2018. In the following decade, it’s set to visit near-Earth asteroids in its earliest manned missions and more-distant plans target a journey to Mars around 2035.
Orion’s complicated deceleration system includes with three main parachutes and two smaller “drogue” chutes that collectively help to slow the craft. The main chutes alone would cover a football field from 10-yard line to 10-yard line.
Three other parachutes are used together with pyrotechnic thrusters to ensure separation of a cover protecting the other parachutes during re-entry, while still three other parachutes are used to lift and deploy the main chutes.
When all goes as planned, the Earth’s atmosphere slows the Orion during re-entry from 20,000 mph to 325 mph. The craft’s parachute system — designed and fabricated by Airborne Systems of Santa Ana, Calif. — slows things to just 20 mph prior to landing, typically in an ocean.
The chute-failure test simulated the loss of one main parachute and one drogue chute.
“That would be kind of an extreme condition for a flight,” NASA project manager Chris Johnson said prior to testing. “But we use these tests to go to the extremes.”
NASA dropped the Orion model from a Boeing C-17 flying above the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds.
Other recent Orion tests include one conducted Aug. 13 test at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., where test engineers fired up its SLS RS-25 rocket engine. NASA said the performance data would be used to ensure the engines are ready for deep-space missions.
NASA worked with Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento to develop the SLS-RS 25 engine.