The spacecraft it is hoped will take man to Mars has passed its first parachute tests with flying colours.
Nasa’s Orion spacecraft landed gently using its parachutes after being shoved out of a military jet at 35,000 feet.
It is hoped the craft will take astronauts to an asteroid in 2018, before eventually helping ferry man to Mars.
It was the first time some parachutes in the system had been tested at such a high altitude.
Engineers also put additional stresses on the parachutes by allowing the test version of Orion to free fall for 10 seconds, which increased the vehicle’s speed and aerodynamic pressure.
‘We’ve put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way before we begin sending them into space on Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 before the year’s done,’ said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer.
‘The series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future.’
After Orion’s free fall, its forward bay cover parachutes deployed, pulling away the spacecraft’s forward bay cover, which is critical to the rest of the system performing as needed.
The parachutes that slow Orion to a safe landing speed are located under the cover, so the cover must be jettisoned before they can be unfurled.
Engineers also rigged one of the main parachutes to skip the second phase of a three-phase process of unfurling each parachute, called reefing.
This tested whether one of the main parachutes could go directly from opening a little to being fully open without an intermediary step, proving the system can tolerate potential failures.
The test also marked the last time the entire parachute sequence will be tested before Orion launches into space in December on its first space flight test, EFT-1.
During the flight, an uncrewed Orion will travel 3,600 miles into space, farther than any spacecraft built to carry humans has been in more than 40 years.
Orion will travel at the speed necessary to test many of the systems critical to NASA’s ability to bring astronauts home safely from missions to deep space, including an asteroid and eventually Mars.
During its return to Earth, Orion will reach a speed of up to 20,000 mph and experience temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once Orion has made it through the atmosphere, the parachute system, with two drogue parachutes and three massive main parachutes that together cover almost an entire football field will be responsible for slowing it down to just 20 mph for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Earlier this months, engineers began stacking the crew module on top of the completed service module, the first step in moving the three primary Orion elements –crew module, service module and launch abort system – into the correct configuration for launch.
‘Now that we’re getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day,’ said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program manager.
‘Orion’s flight test will provide us with important data that will help us test out systems and further refine the design so we can safely send humans far into the solar system to uncover new scientific discoveries on future missions.’
With the crew module now in place, the engineers will secure it and make the necessary power connections between to the service module over the course of the week.
Once the bolts and fluid connector between the modules are in place, the stacked spacecraft will undergo electrical, avionic and radio frequency tests.
The modules are being put together in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell in the Operations and Checkout Facility at Kennedy.
Here, the integrated modules will be put through their final system tests prior to rolling out of the facility for integration with the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket that will send it on its mission.
Orion is being prepared for its first launch later this year, an uncrewed flight that will take it 3,600 miles above Earth, in a 4.5 hour mission to test the systems critical for future human missions to deep space.
After two orbits, Orion will reenter Earth’s atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour before its parachute system deploys to slow the spacecraft for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Orion’s flight test also will provide important data for the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and ocean recovery of Orion.
Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, have built an advanced adapter to connect Orion to the Delta IV Heavy rocket that will launch the spacecraft during the December test.
The adapter also will be used during future SLS missions. NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, based at Kennedy, will recover the Orion crew module with the U.S. Navy after its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Earlier this month Nasa began ramping up excitement for sending humans to Mars, outlining its path to the red planet, and showcasing some of the technologies that will help people get there.
But as revealed in a 286-page National Research Council (NRC) report commissioned by the agency, Nasa has been warned that its efforts will be doomed to fail if it does not change its methods.
The scathing assessment claims that without sufficient funding, a clear goal, or help from nations such as China, Nasa will not be capable of making the next giant leap for mankind.
According to the NRC’s report, Pathways to Exploration – Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, the U.S. should abandon its ‘flexible approach’ to human missions beyond Earth, set Mars as its ultimate goal and open the door to partnerships with other partners including China.
Both of these are seen as necessities for future missions beyond low-Earth orbit – but as of yet neither has a solid goal beyond a few test flights leading up to 2021.
The NRC recommends Nasa chooses one of three stepping-stone approaches toward Mars, that build technological know-how through a series of well-defined preliminary missions.
All three options begin with the International Space Station (ISS).
The station is seen as vital in testing not only technologies for long-term space travel, but also the psychological and biological strains that will be felt by astronauts.
However, the report claims Nasa’s current plan of operating the ISS into the next decade, possibly as far as 2028, alongside assembling the technologies to land humans on Mars is not feasible.
Continuing on this path ‘is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,’ said the NRC in its report.
Two of the options then involve sending humans back to the moon, something not favoured by the Obama administration.
‘I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before,’ Obama said in 2010 when outlining Nasa’s space policy for the forthcoming years.
But these paths would be less technologically daunting, NRC panel co-chairman Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University said.
One suggestion is that Nasa could follow the International Space Station program, which currently costs the United States about £1.8 billion ($3 billion) a year, with a series of lunar sorties – an outpost on the moon and then a mission to Mars, according to the report.
The other moon-based option would follow the space station with human missions to an orbit beyond the moon, then to an asteroid in its native orbit, then to the lunar surface, the moons of Mars, Martian orbit and then to Mars itself.
This would have the most stops en route to Mars, but poses the least technological risk because milestones have to be met along the way, claimed the NRC.
The third path includes Nasa’s current plan to robotically capture an asteroid, redirect it into a high orbit around the moon and send astronauts there to explore.
The report suggests that the path should continue with missions to the moons of Mars, then on to Martian orbit, and finally to the surface of the planet.
Source: Daily Mail