Boeing's Starliner capsule completes its final parachute drop tests
Boeing has taken another step forward – following one or two recent steps back – in the development of its Starliner capsule, successfully completing a series of final parachute tests for the spacecraft’s landing system. The exercise allowed for the collection of valuable data on the performance of pre-flown parachutes, with the team now setting its sights on a second orbital test flight and crewed trips to the International Space Station (ISS).
Developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing’s Starliner is one of the spacecraft the agency hopes to use to ferry its astronauts back and forth from the ISS, but the program has experienced a number of setbacks. These include a couple of changes to the crew but, more notably, also an aborted uncrewed test mission in December last year due to an onboard malfunction.
As it eyes the commencement of crewed flights next year, Boeing is pushing ahead with testing, with its latest series of exercises designed to evaluate the spacecraft’s parachutes and airbags designed to bring it safely down to Earth.
The landing system consists of a pair of small parachutes that carry away the Starliner’s heat shield as it plummets back the Earth. Two drogue parachutes are then deployed to slow and stabilize the craft, before three main parachutes follow to slow the descent further ahead of a touchdown on land.
Th system was put to the test over the New Mexico desert across six flights, with the team using high-altitude balloons to hoist the gear into the air. Pre-flown parachutes were used so the team could gather data on their reusability.
“Our philosophy has always been testing the system hardware together to see how all the elements interact,” says Starliner landing system lead at Boeing, Mike McCarley. “Our vehicle can’t fit in an airplane, so the only way we can lift a test article high enough to simulate an entire landing system sequence is with very a large balloon.”
The final test saw the system dropped from an altitude of 35,000 ft (10,700 m), with the team simulating a couple of faults along the way. First, they prevented the heat shield parachutes from deploying, but were able to safely separate the heat shield anyway, and they then prevented one of the drogue parachutes from deploying.
This meant the system had to descend a distance of around 10,000 ft (3,000 m) using just one drogue parachute instead of two, though the three main parachutes were soon deployed to pick up the slack.
“Parachute systems are inherently complex,” McCarley says. “These are chaotic events by nature. You could do the same test over and over again and see slightly different results. That’s why consistency in data collection is so important.”
Boeing says it will now reinforce the main parachutes by strengthening some of the suspension lines in the canopies, and will continue collecting data on the system during an upcoming second orbital test flight. It plans to begin crewed flights sometime in 2021.
The video below shows the parachute test.