nasa orion capsule abort

Nasa tests astronaut capsule abort systems for 2024 Moon mission

Image credit: reuters

Nasa has demonstrated the viability of an astronaut safety device installed in its Orion spacecraft that will allow it to outrun a speeding rocket and pull astronauts to safety in an emergency.

The Orion crew capsule was lofted more than 13km atop a ballistic missile test booster from an Air Force station in Florida before firing its three abort thrusters, which would be used to jettison astronauts to safety in the event of a rocket failure.

The capsule was empty for the demo, which officials said appeared to be successful.

“It looked like a complete mission success to me,” said Blake Watters, a launch-abort-system propulsion engineer at Lockheed Martin Corp, Orion’s manufacturer. “This is the big check in the box on putting astronauts on board.”

Nasa chose not to use parachutes, in order to keep this test version of the capsule simple and thus save time, so it crashed into the Atlantic at 480km/h as planned, with the three-minute test complete.

A team is collecting the 12 data recorders that were ejected during the test capsule’s descent. Analysis of the information will provide insight into the abort system’s performance.

“We're building the most powerful rocket in the world to send astronauts to the Moon in the Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at Nasa headquarters in Washington.

“With this exploration system designed to safely carry humans farther into space than ever before, we'll also have an equally powerful launch abort system that will pull the crew away if there is a problem with the rocket during the early portion of ascent.”

The tower-like abort structure consists of two parts: the fairing assembly, which is a shell composed of a lightweight composite material that protects the capsule from the heat, air flow and acoustics of the launch, ascent, and abort environments; and the launch abort tower, which includes the abort motor, attitude control motor, and jettison motor.

Using Orion and Nasa’s Space Launch System (SLS), which is being built for a debut flight in late 2020, the US space agency is aiming to return humans to the moon by 2024 in an accelerated timeline set in March by the Trump administration. No humans have launched from US soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.

Last month, a report from the US Government’s General Accounting Office suggested that the SLS is “unlikely” to meet its June 2020 construction date, which may delay the Moon trip plans beyond 2024.

A two-person crew inside Russia’s Soyuz capsule, used by the United States to carry its astronauts to the International Space Station, last year used its abort system 50km above the surface of the Earth when the rocket malfunctioned. That was the first such mishap in over 30 years for the launch system.

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