With NASA's Orion spacecraft intended to carry crews to the moon, an asteroid and Mars, it will be taking human beings farther into space than ever before. Hopefully, it will also be bringing them back, with the distance of the return trips seeing the spacecraft picking up a lot of speed and reentering the Earth’s atmosphere faster than any previous spacecraft. In the latest in a series of tests that bring the spacecraft another step towards a planned first test flight in 2014, NASA has verified the capsule will safely make it back to terra firma even if one of its drogue parachutes fails to open.
The 21,000-pound (9,525 kg) Orion capsule has a total of five parachutes. These include three main parachutes, each measuring 116 feet (35 m) across, and two drogue parachutes 23 feet (7 m) across. Only two main parachutes and one drogue are required to bring the capsule safely back to Earth, with the extra main and drogue parachutes providing a backup in the case one of the primary chutes fails.
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The latest in a series of parachute tests carried out by NASA were to verify whether the spacecraft could indeed land safely relying on the backup drogue parachute. A failure of one of the drogues was simulated using a mockup spacecraft that was dropped from a plane 25,000 feet above the Arizona desert at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground on December 20. Around 30 seconds into the fall, the second drogue parachute opened and slowed the mockup sufficiently for the three main parachutes to take over the descent.
“The mockup vehicle landed safely in the desert and everything went as planned," said Chris Johnson, a NASA project manager for Orion's parachute assembly system. "We designed the parachute system so nothing will go wrong, but plan and test as though something will so we can make sure Orion is the safest vehicle ever to take humans to space."
The next Orion parachute test that is scheduled for February 2013 will simulate a failure of one of the three main parachutes. This will mark yet another step towards the planned 2014 launch of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test-1. This flight will see the spacecraft traveling to a distance some 3,600 miles (5,794 m) above the Earth’s surface, which is 5 times farther than the International Space Station’s (ISS) orbit. The main objective of this flight will be to test the Orion’s heat shield performance at speeds generated during a return from deep space.
Video of the Orion capsule mockup being dropped from a plane to test the backup drogue parachute can be viewed below.