NASA tests Orion parachutes to breaking point
NASA has been pushing thesafety features on its next-generation Orion spacecraft to theextreme, as it carried out a dramatic parachute test. During thetest, engineers staged the failure of various components of thedescent system in order to see if it would still function, and savethe lives of a potential crew in a worst case scenario.
The capsule that was droppedduring yesterday's test was not a size-accurate representation of theOrion spacecraft. Instead, it was a squashed-down dummy version withdimensions that would allow it to fit in the hold of the C-17aircraft that would transport it to the drop altitude of 35,000 ft(10, 668 m).
Whilst the dummy mayhave been slightly out of proportion, its key characteristics, suchas weight and base surface area, were similar enough to the actualspacecraft to make it a viable analogue for the purpose of the test.
A standarddescent scenario would include the deployment of 11 parachutes,including two enormous drogue chutes and three main parachutesdesigned to slow and stabilize the capsule's descent. The initialdeployment takes place while Orion is moving in excess of 300 mph(482 km/h), with the system expected to slow the capsule to around20 mph (32 km/h) within the space of a few minutes
The test, which tookplace in the skies above the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in theArizona desert, saw NASA engineers sabotage two of the spacecraft'sparachutes – a drogue chute and a main stage parachute. It alsoinvolved evaluating a design change to lighter weight suspensionlines and alterations to the risers, both of which were intended toreduce the descent system's overall mass.
"We test Orion’sparachutes to the extremes to ensure we have a safe system forbringing crews back to Earth on future flights, even if somethinggoes wrong," states CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’sparachute system. "Orion’s parachute performance is difficult tomodel with computers, so putting them to the test in the air helps usbetter evaluate and predict how the system works."
Despite the handicap,the mock capsule touched down without a hitch, moving the Orionspacecraft one step closer to being mission-ready. Each parachutetest is vitally important, as while the Apollo spacecraft underwentin excess of 125 parachute tests, Orion will have less than 40 forthe system to become human-rated. Yesterday's test was the penultimatedrop before the final push for crewed certification, which willinvolve a further eight drops over the next three years.
Scroll down to view a condensed version of the test.