The US space agency, NASA, has successfully completed the most complex and flight-like test of the Orion spacecraft’s parachute system on June 25. A test version of the Orion spacecraft was pulled out of a C-17 aircraft, 35,000 feet above the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground.
This was the highest altitude at which Orion’s parachutes had been tested. As if that were not enough, further stress was placed on the parachutes as Orion was allowed to free fall for 10 seconds which ramped up the vehicle’s speed and aerodynamic pressures. After the free fall, Orion’s parachutes deployed from the forward bay as they deployed, the parachutes successfully displaced the forward bay cover, a protective shell designed to remain in place until Orion reenters Earth’s atmosphere. This is the crucial step in the parachutes’ ability to function.
“The Orion spacecraft then touched down safely in the Arizona desert,” said NASA.
Such stress tests are vital, as upon returning from a deep space mission from destinations such as Mars, NASA scientists predict that upon making contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, Orion would be traveling at speeds in excess of 20,000 mph (32,187 km/h). While re-entry through the atmosphere will have the effect of slowing the crew module to speeds of around 350 mph (563 km/h), the 20,000 lb (9,072 kg) spacecraft would still need to slow to a mere 20 mph (32 km/h) to accomplish a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Wednesday’s test of the whole parachute deployment sequence was the final such evaluation before Orion embarks on its first test flight in space, Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) in December. During EFT-1, the unmanned Orion will sail 3,600 miles into space, the farthest any craft built to be manned has been from Earth in over four decades. EFT-1 will assess vital systems needed to safely ferry astronauts on deep space missions.
When Orion returns to Earth at the conclusion of EFT-1, it will attain a top speed of 20,000 miles per hour and endure temperatures close to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit when it enters the atmosphere. Orion will then deploy its entire parachute array, two drogue parachutes and three primary parachutes, which will slow it down to a mere 20 miles per hour for splashdown in the Pacific.
“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.”
The Orion capsule is designed to take astronauts to Mars and other far-flung destinations. It will depend on parachutes to slow its descent when it re-enters the atmosphere after spaceflight
No chances are being taken with the safety of future crewed missions, so to simulate a partial failure in the parachute deployment system, NASA engineers skipped what is known as a reefing stage for one of Orion’s three main parachutes. The reefing stage is essentially a process that allows each of Orion’s three 115 ft. (36 m) main parachutes to open in a gradual and controlled manner.
During the test, disabling this feature had the effect of opening one of the main parachutes in a sudden, premature fashion. However, the parachute apparently suffered no obvious damage, and in no time Orion was descending to the surface of the Arizona desert under three fully deployed main stage parachutes.
Three more drops are scheduled to further test the descent systems with the next drop in August focusing on how Orion would react upon descent to a simulated failure in one of its three main parachutes.