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SpaceX tests abort feature for astronaut-carrying capsule

Image credit: reuters

SpaceX has successfully tested the abort feature for its crew capsule that could be transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) within a matter of months.

The abort feature is crucial for achieving the necessary certification from Nasa that the capsule is the right choice for transport to the Station.

SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon astronaut capsule at 10:30 am yesterday and it splashed down about 32km off the coast of Cape Canaveral in Florida approximately eight minutes later. Its abort systems ensured it was automatically ejected from the rocket that cut off its engines 19km above the ocean to mimic a launch failure.

No humans were aboard: two mannequins took their place in the capsule. Powerful thrusters on the capsule propelled it up and out of harm’s way as the booster tumbled out of control in a fiery flash.

Company founder Elon Musk described the test as “a picture-perfect mission”, saying that, “It went as well as one can possibly expect.”

Musk added: “It’s just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. That’s just super-exciting.”

Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine also described the test as a success.

The first mission with humans aboard, which will be the final test mission before Nasa's commercial crew program becomes operational, is scheduled for Q2 2020 after the spacecraft is completed no later than March, Musk said.

Recycled from three previous launches, the SpaceX rocket was destroyed as it crashed into the sea in pieces.

The company founded and led by Musk normally recovers its boosters, landing them upright on a floating platform or back at the launch site.

“That’s the main objective of this test, to show that we can carry the astronauts safely away from the rocket in case anything’s going wrong,” said Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX.

Nasa’s commercial crew programme manager, Kathy Lueders, said the launch abort test was “our last open milestone” before allowing SpaceX to launch Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken to the ISS.

“We are purposely failing a launch vehicle to make sure that our abort system on the spacecraft, that will be flying for our crews, works,” Lueders said in advance of the demo.

Delayed one day by bad weather, Sunday’s launch from Kennedy Space Centre brought together hundreds of SpaceX, Nasa and Air Force employees on land, at sea and in the air.

Nasa astronauts have not launched from the US since 2011, when the space shuttle programme ended. The final shuttle launch was Atlantis, on July 8 2011.

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