A great deal of our future in space is going to rely upon private space firms, but NASA isn’t sitting on the sidelines when it comes to human spaceflight. It’s working on the powerful Space Launch System and associated Orion crew capsule for long-range space missions. The agency recently conducted a parachute test on the Orion capsule, and it went off without a hitch.
NASA has designed Orion to carry a crew of four on missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Unlike the Shuttle, Orion is not a fully reusable vehicle that glides in for a landing. Instead, it’s more like the classic Apollo capsules. It will deploy parachutes to slow its descent before splashing down in the ocean. While Orion is lighter than the Apollo module, it has 2.5 times more internal volume for crew and equipment.
The new test was performed on March 8th and included all three main chutes. Orion was loaded aboard a C-17 cargo plane and taken up to an altitude of 25,000 feet before being released. The parachute system is actually more complicated than you might expect. It begins with three small parachutes that pull off the hatch cover protecting the main chutes. Then, two high-speed drogue chutes are deployed to slow and steady the spacecraft. Finally, the pilot can deploy the main parachutes. Each main parachute has a diameter of 116 feet. Together, they could nearly cover a football field. A perfect deployment should slow the capsule from more than 300 mph to just 20 mph.
Orion spacecraft, in space (render)
The latest test of Orion’s parachutes is just the second of eight total for the human flight plan. That’s in addition to seventeen tests during the design stage. A previous test took place on August 26, 2015, and was what is commonly called a “failure test.” It simulated what would happen if one of the spacecraft’s three chutes failed to deploy. In that instance, the module was still able to splashdown at a safe rate of descent.
After crew testing is complete, Orion’s next mission should be around September 2018 (Exploration Mission 1) when it launches on the SLS platform for a lunar orbit. The previous flight tests used a Delta IV Heavy rocket as the SLS was not complete. The 2018 launch may or may not have crew aboard, but a planned 2021 launch (Exploration Mission 2) will be crewed. Future missions could include capturing asteroids and sending a manned mission to Mars.