NASA tests Orion parachutes to breaking point

A mock Orion spacecraft descends under two main stage parachutes(Credit: NASA)

NASA has been pushing the safety features on its next-generation Orion spacecraft to the extreme, as it carried out a dramatic parachute test. During the test, engineers staged the failure of various components of the descent system in order to see if it would still function, and save the lives of a potential crew in a worst case scenario.

The capsule that was dropped during yesterday's test was not a size-accurate representation of the Orion spacecraft. Instead, it was a squashed-down dummy version with dimensions that would allow it to fit in the hold of the C-17 aircraft that would transport it to the drop altitude of 35,000 ft (10, 668 m).

Whilst the dummy may have been slightly out of proportion, its key characteristics, such as weight and base surface area, were similar enough to the actual spacecraft to make it a viable analogue for the purpose of the test.

A standard descent scenario would include the deployment of 11 parachutes, including two enormous drogue chutes and three main parachutes designed to slow and stabilize the capsule's descent. The initial deployment takes place while Orion is moving in excess of 300 mph (482 km/h), with the system expected to slow the capsule to around 20 mph (32 km/h) within the space of a few minutes

The test, which took place in the skies above the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in the Arizona desert, saw NASA engineers sabotage two of the spacecraft's parachutes – a drogue chute and a main stage parachute. It also involved evaluating a design change to lighter weight suspension lines and alterations to the risers, both of which were intended to reduce the descent system's overall mass.

"We test Orion’s parachutes to the extremes to ensure we have a safe system for bringing crews back to Earth on future flights, even if something goes wrong," states CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system. "Orion’s parachute performance is difficult to model with computers, so putting them to the test in the air helps us better evaluate and predict how the system works."

Despite the handicap, the mock capsule touched down without a hitch, moving the Orion spacecraft one step closer to being mission-ready. Each parachute test is vitally important, as while the Apollo spacecraft underwent in excess of 125 parachute tests, Orion will have less than 40 for the system to become human-rated. Yesterday's test was the penultimate drop before the final push for crewed certification, which will involve a further eight drops over the next three years.

Scroll down to view a condensed version of the test.

Source: NASA

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