Nasa launches Orion crew capsule to test abort system

Pablo Tucker
July 5, 2019

Raw video: NASA performs key test in preparation for future manned missions to the moon with a successful test of the Orion spacecraft's launch abort system from the Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA successfully demonstrated Tuesday the Orion spacecraft's launch abort system can outrun a speeding rocket and pull astronauts to safety during an emergency during launch.

At 7:00 a.m. American Eastern time (1100 GMT), a booster was launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying an abort system and a 10,000-kg Orion test vehicle to an altitude of about 9,600 meters.

That height however did place it in a region where it encountered "high-stress aerodynamic conditions" that Orion should encounter when launched. The capsule continued upward another two miles, then flipped to jettison the abort tower. "The neat part is, the next time this full launch abort system flies there will be crew underneath it in Artemis 2". As NASA pointed out in its release, the parachute system is already good to go, following successful tests a year ago. Orion's abort motor kicked in when the capsule was about 31,000 feet above the ground, and the capsule returned to Earth just three minutes after liftoff, landing in the Atlantic Ocean. During the test, the Orion capsule managed to reach a safe distance away from the careening rocket. The crew module rests inside the tee and once the fairing is jettisoned, it rapidly accelerates away from the rocket booster, powering to 31,000 feet at around 1,000 miles per hour.

NASA is planning on sending American men and women to the south pole of the moon by 2024 under the program name Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and twin sister of Apollo. There wasn't anyone inside the capsule during the test, but NASA wanted to see if its system could successfully carry it away from a malfunctioning rocket. An issue with a rocket can put the lives of space travelers in serious danger, and launch abort systems are created to mitigate that risk. "We simplified the test article", he said. To get there, NASA will use the Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful rocket that's still under development.

That said, NASA expects to retrieve 12 data recorders ejected by the capsule during its descent, the data from which "will provide insight into the abort system's performance", according to NASA.

The Orion capsule's next flight will be crewed, the first flight in the Artemis program to land humans on the moon, set to occur by 2024. The Orion spacecraft would first take astronauts to the Gateway, and then they would fly to the surface of the moon by a lunar lander. The uncrewed flight tested the capsule's heat shield to determine the conditions the spacecraft would face when returning from deep-space missions.

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