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SpaceX to test passenger spaceship escape system

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
May 6, 2015, 4:38 UTC

Sen—Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will put a prototype passenger Dragon spaceship through its first test flight Wednesday, demonstrating how it can catapult itself to safety in case of a fire or accident during launch.

“It is similar to an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is ‘ejected’ away from the launch vehicle,” SpaceX said in a statement.

Outfitted with 270 sensors, the 20ft tall Dragon capsule will fire its eight SuperDraco thrusters to lift itself off from a simulated rocket stage at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

No astronauts will be aboard for the test, though an instrumented crash dummy has been strapped into a seat inside the crew cabin.

Barring weather and technical issues, the capsule is expected to blast off around 11:00 UTC (7 a.m. EDT). If needed, SpaceX has 7.5 hours to conduct the test.

“We don’t have an orbit or a space station to catch,” said Jon Cowart, a manager with NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which is working with SpaceX, Boeing and other companies developing space taxis.

SpaceX has never fired more than two SuperDracos at a time. The thrusters, each of which generate 15,000 pounds of thrust, should burn for six seconds, catapulting the capsule nearly one mile into the sky before it parachutes into the Atlantic Ocean.

Boats will be standing by about a mile offshore to retrieve the capsule, which will be taken to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, facility for detailed analysis and clean up so that it can fly again later this year for a second launch abort test, this time from aboard a speeding Falcon 9 rocket.

Here’s a rundown from SpaceX of what to expect during Wednesday’s launch escape demonstration:

*T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

*T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

*T+5s: The abort burn ends once all the propellant is consumed, leaving Dragon to coast for just over 15 seconds. Its highest point should be about 1,500 meters (.93 miles) above the launch pad.

*T+21s: The capsule’s trunk section is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

*T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed four to six seconds after trunk separation.

*T+35s: Three main parachutes deploy, further slowing the spacecraft before splashdown.

*T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2,200 meters (1.4 miles) east of the launch pad.

During the test, Dragon will accelerate from zero to nearly 100 mph in one second.

“That’s probably faster than a Tesla—maybe,” joked SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann, a reference to a sister company owned by SpaceX boss Elon Musk.

The entire test will last less than two minutes. Read more on the launch abort test.

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Infographic of the launch escape test. Image credit: SpaceX