Lockheed Martin announced that it's completed tests of design changes for NASA's Orion spacecraft’s fairing separation system. Based on information from Orion's unmanned maiden flight on December 5 last year, the alterations are meant to improve performance while reducing weight.

The problem with spacecraft is that they're designed to work in space, but to get there, they have to travel through a lot of atmosphere very fast. To protect the fragile craft and give the nose of the launch rocket a smooth, aerodynamic shape, a fairing is usually fitted to fend off sunlight, heat, wind turbulence, and vibrations. In the case of Orion, the fairing is made up of three panels that fit over the capsule and service module to protect the windows, radiators, and solar panels.

The tests, which took place at Lockheed Martin's Sunnyvale facility in California, involved a three-second testbed separation designed to test different pyrotechnic configurations used to blow loose the panels. These need to handle larger loads for Orion's next flight, Exploration Mission-1, in 2017 because of the greater thrust of the Space launch System (SLS), which will be used for the launch. The shock data from the test will be sent to the European Space Agency (ESA), which is building the service module for NASA.

Lockheed says that the changes that were made to the fairings system include new push pins to force the panels away over a longer period of time to improve safety, reducing crew module attachments from six to four to lower launch weight, and attaching the covers of the star tracker cameras used for navigation to the fairing, so that they are removed when the panels fall away.

"The fairing separation is one of our very first critical events," says Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager. "If it doesn’t work as planned, it’s probable the mission cannot continue, and tests like this help ensure it will work right the first time and every time."