NASA’s Orion spacecraft completes final safety test, next stop is the moon

NASA’s Tuesday launch went smoothly.


NASA/Screenshot by Techhnews

NASA has cleared the final hurdle in testing its Orion spacecraft with the completion of the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) flight test. The success marks an important milestone for the crew capsule that will put humans back on the moon, demonstrating its safety in an emergency abort scenario. 

Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early Tuesday morning, AA-2 was designed to push the capsule’s abort system to its limits with a full-stress test. While full results of the test are still to be revealed, the capsule was successfully jettisoned from the launch vehicle approximately 55 seconds post-launch. A briefing is currently scheduled for late Tuesday morning and is expected to reveal initial insights regarding the test data. 

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It was a humid morning in Florida but Orion, perched on top of a solid-fuel rocket and encased within a fairing assembly, launched just right on schedule at 4 a.m. PT. The capsule used for the test operated like a dummy spacecraft, weighted to resemble the real thing, but in effect was just an Orion-shaped box. It was positioned at the bottom of the upside-down golf tee-shaped Launch Abort System (LAS). 

As it launched, we didn’t quite see the dazzling flurry of fire and flame we’ve become accustomed to with SpaceX launches but, of course, it wasn’t meant to be that way. This was a small test lasting only 3 minutes, aimed at ticking off a fundamental crew safeguard of the moon-bound craft.  

“Our Launch Abort System is a key safety feature of the spacecraft,” said Orion program manager Mark Kirasich prior to the test. “It will protect the crew members who fly on-board Orion during the most challenging part of the mission, which is the ascent phase.”  

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The 7 a.m. PT launch was an uncrewed test designed to replicate a real one.


NASA/Screenshot by Techhnews

Less than a minute into the flight, the abort sequence was initiated. By that time, the spacecraft had reached Mach 1.3 and hit 31,000 feet in altitude, just a few thousand feet lower than most commercial airliners fly. At that point, the abort motor fired and the crew module blasted away from the launch vehicle escaping the chasing rocket before falling back to Earth. Once the LAS oriented itself in mid-flight, it ejected the Orion capsule into the ocean and blasted away. Orion did not contain any parachutes, so it came hurtling back towards the ocean and is set to sleep with the fishes. 

NASA has already run a number of high-end computer simulations that aim to stress test the capsule to see how it fares during an abort. The data collected from the real flight will be analyzed in conjunction with those tests, thanks to a dozen data recorders that were jettisoned every ten seconds as Orion began free fall into the sea. 

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The spacecraft hit 31,000 feet in altitude when the abort sequence was initiated.


NASA/Screenshot by Techhnews

Ascent Abort-2 was the last of three tests designed to evaluate the Orion capsule. Although emergency aborts are rather rare in crewed rocket launches, one did occur earlier this year when a Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned during ascent. That emergency resulted in a ballistic descent for NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin. “We have to prepare for this even though its a low likelihood of happening,” fellow astronaut Randy Bresnik noted in a pre-launch briefing.

The capsule is slated to fly, for the first time, aboard NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, in July 2020. That first flight will be uncrewed and last for approximately 25 days, with the Orion capsule spending around 10 days in orbit around the moon. Success in that mission will pave the way for the Artemis program to ready itself for first human spaceflight missions in 2022. 

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