Space Capsule Testing Gets ‘Drop Zone’ Treatment
Thursday, September 20th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Spacecraft have been dropping out of the sky these days — that is, versions of NASA’s Orion crew spacecraft. Some of them have been dropped over desert, others over water, but all have seemingly passed the durability tests that will be ramping up over the next few months as project engineers aim for a full test flight in 2014.
Good Digs Make Good Neighbours
The Orion spacecraft was originally part of NASA’s Constellation space exploration program, which was canceled by President Obama’s administration in 2010. With several contracts already in place for the spacecraft, the design was carried forward as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
The vehicle is designed to carry a crew of four on missions that range 21-210 days in length. And it’s likely that those four astronauts will remain friendly given their highly-habitable crew module, which is 316 cubic feet (about 9 cubic meters), according to NASA.
The spacecraft has three sections: the launch abort system, which can activate “within milliseconds to propel the crew module to safety in the event of an emergency during launch or climb into orbit”; the module for crew or cargo transport; and the service module.
The vehicle’s systems are designed to be flexible to allow for changes as technological innovations become available.
Down Goes the Capsule
On Aug. 28, NASA dropped a test version of the vehicle over the U.S. Yuma Army Proving Grounds in southwest Arizona to gauge the maximum pressure the vehicle’s parachutes might face during re-entry. A C-130 dropped the test vehicle from an altitude of about 25,000 feet. The vehicle dropped about 5,000 feet, then deployed three main parachutes, each about 116 feet wide and weighing more than 300 pounds.
According to NASA, the test simulated the parachutes during the maximum velocity the vehicle might reach as it returns from deep space.
The Hydro Impact Basin
The week before, NASA was measuring the Orion capsule’s landing loads at splashdown by dropping a simulated version of the module into the new Hydro Impact Basin at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. The first vertical drop test was from 2.25 feet up and grew to more than 9 feet as tests progressed over the next few days. Last summer, NASA Langley conducted drop tests, meaning the modules were sent into the water at an angle.
The Hydro Impact Basin is 115-feet long and 90-feet wide and holds about one million gallons of water. Construction was finished early last year near the center’s historic Gantry, where Apollo astronauts — including the late Neil Armstrong – trained for moon missions.
The first test flight of Orion is scheduled for 2014, when an unmanned version will be launched 3,600 miles from Earth (15 times farther than the International Space Station) and reach a speed of 20,000 mph.
Then Orion will make its highest, fastest, and hardest drop from the sky of all. That should be an interesting test, indeed.
UPDATE: NASA Langley has recently completed a 25-foot (7.62-meter) water impact test of the Orion spacecraft. The 18,000-pound (8,165 kilogram) capsule was dropped at NASA’s Langley Research Center on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com