NASA Orion spacecraft completes trial by fire test, second of three tests needed for crewed missions

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NASA has conducted a successful “trial by fire” test on Orion’s abort system, the second to the last trial the spacecraft needs to undergo before receiving approval for manned missions.

Orion is NASA’s next-generation spacecraft is a multi-purpose crew vehicle. In other words, it is being constructed to carry humans to destinations at/or beyond low Earth orbit. Orion has a crew capacity of up to four astronauts.

Currently, Orion is under development for the space agency’s ambitious plan of returning man and the first woman back on the moon aboard the mission code-named Artemis. Additionally, it is also paired with NASA’s upcoming mega-rocket, the Space Launch System.

As of now, mission Artemis is slated for a 2024 launch.

Before it gets to carry humans to space, however, the new rocket will need to undergo several vigorous testing to ensure the safety and success of the Artemis mission.

In an August 22 demonstration, NASA conducted a second test on its abort system — one of three components — that will act as an emergency escape button in case of unforeseen circumstances with the SLS rocket.

“The launch abort system is designed to transport Orion and its crew to safety in the event of an emergency during launch or ascent,” NASA explained in a statement.

“It consists of three solid rocket motors: the abort motor pulls the crew module away from the launch vehicle; the ACM steers and orients the capsule; then the jettison motor ignites to separate the launch abort system from Orion for parachute deployment and a safe crew landing,” the agency added.

The latest demonstration involved determining the capacity of the Altitude Control Motor (ACM), which is designed to power Orion away to safety once the spacecraft has successfully pulled away from the SLS rocket.

The ACM can quickly steer Orion in direction, while a jettison motor will be added separately from the crew before astronauts use their parachutes for a safe ocean landing.

A part of the Orion spacecraft abort system that underwent a 30-second “trial by fire” test. It showed that the ACM was able to blow thrust from multiple valves.
Source: NASA

The demonstration was conducted by Northrop Grumman — who also developed the technology for the emergency safety feature.

According to NASA, Orion’s ACM generated over 7,000 pounds (3,175 kg) of thrust from multiple valves during the 30-second test, which took place at a company facility in Elkton, Md.

The recent ACM demonstration was the second to last trial it must undergo to qualify for the Artemis 2 manned mission to the moon in 2022.

Last July 2, Orion also underwent a successful 12-minute firing of its propulsion system that simulated the possible alternate mission scenario in case of an emergency.

In the demonstration, it showed how Orion was able to separate itself from the rocket as it lifted off to the sky — the first step the spacecraft would make once its abort system is activated.

“About 27 seconds after the abort is initiated and the Orion elements separate from the booster, the launch abort system’s jettison motor is seen firing, releasing the capsule,” NASA said in a statement.

“The July 2 test demonstrated Orion’s launch abort system works during high-stress aerodynamic conditions and can pull the capsule to safety if an emergency ever arises during launch,” the agency added.

While Artemis 1 will be the first, full test flight of the SLS and Orion, it will still remain to be an uncrewed launch to an orbit around the moon. We will still have to wait until Artemis 2 for both Orion and SLS to bring humans back on the moon.

For now, NASA has yet to complete testing and safety precautions before any of that actually happens.

“Inserting Orion into lunar orbit and returning the crew on a trajectory back home to Earth requires extreme precision in both plotting the course and firing the engines to execute that plan,” said Mark Kirasich, program manager for Orion in a statement.

“With each testing campaign we conduct like this one, we’re getting closer to accomplishing our missions to the Moon and beyond.”

Fortunately, NASA said that all three motors of the abort system will be certified for future crewed flights after qualification tests, which is set to be completed later this year.

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