(Sen) - NASA engineers have successfully shown that astronauts returning from exploring deep space will be able to land safely even if a main parachute fails.
Their latest tests on the Orion spacecraft's parachutes demonstrated that on a real mission, the capsule can reach the Pacific Ocean using just two if the third doesn't inflate.
A test capsule was dropped from a plane 25,000 ft above the Arizona desert at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground on 12 February. But engineers rigged it so that only two parachutes would inflate, leaving the third hanging loose.
The test follows an earlier one in December when engineers successfully simulated the failure of one of Orion's two drogue chutes that will slow it from its high-speed reentry.
Orion is designed to carry astronauts on missions far beyond low-Earth orbit where space explorers have been trapped for forty years. Destinations could include asteroids, a return to the Moon and eventually planet Mars.
Orion's first unmanned test flight is planned for 2014 when it will travel 15 times further than the International Space Station's orbit, to a distance of 5,800 km (3,600 miles) above the Earth.
By 2017, NASA's new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) will be ready to put Orion into space on more ambitious missions. Returning from any of these trips, the space capsule will reenter Earth's atmosphere at speeds of more than 20,000 mph and the work of the parachutes is critical to achieving a gentle splashdown.
Results from the parachute tests show that the 21,000-pound capsule actually only needs a single drogue chute and two main parachutes to land quite happily.
An artist's impression of Orion flying past the Moon. Credit: Lockheed Martin
NASA say they understand that. But the extra chutes are effectively back-ups, particularly vital for a crewed craft, that will allow the spacecraft to function even if something goes wrong.
Chris Johnson, a NASA project manager for Orion's parachute system, said: "Today is a great validation of the parachute system. We never intend to have a parachute fail, but we've proven that if we do, the system is robust for our crew to make it to the ground safely."
Last week's test was the eighth parachute engineering development drop test carried out for the Orion mission. The next is scheduled for May.