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NASA's Orion passes difficult parachute test

Jenny Winder, News Writer
May 6, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is being designed to take humans to deep space, passed further milestones May 1 when a test version of the capsule landed safely during a simulation of two types of parachute failures.

The test capsule was dropped from a plane 25,000 feet above the Arizona desert. Engineers rigged one of the test capsule's two drogue parachutes not to deploy and one of its three main parachutes to skip its first stage of inflation. Drogue parachutes are used to slow and reorient Orion while the main parachutes inflate in three stages to gradually slow the capsule further as it descends.

Orion has the largest parachute system ever built for a human-rated spacecraft. The canopies of the three main parachutes can cover almost an entire football field. After re-entering Earth's atmosphere, astronauts will use the parachutes to slow the spacecraft before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

The test capsule was traveling at 250 mph when the parachutes were deployed, the highest speed the craft has experienced as part of the test series. This failure scenario, one of the most difficult simulated so far, will provide data engineers need for human rating the parachute system.

Testing allows engineers to verify the parachutes are reliable even when something goes wrong. Changes to the design and materials used in Orion's parachute system have already been made based on previous tests. Other government or commercial spacecraft using a similar parachute system also can benefit from the work done to validate Orion.

"Parachute deployment is inherently chaotic and not easily predictable," said Stu McClung, Orion's landing and recovery system manager. "Gravity never takes any time off, there's no timeout. The end result can be very unforgiving. That's why we test. If we have problems with the system, we want to know about them now."

A model of NASA’s Orion spacecraft is loaded into the C-17 airplane that then dropped it from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the Arizona desert.

A model of NASA's Orion spacecraft is loaded into the C-17 airplane that then dropped it from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the Arizona desert. Image credit: NASA

Orion's next Earth-based parachute test is scheduled for July, when the test capsule will be released from 35,000 feet, a higher altitude than ever before.

The first test of the parachutes after traveling in space will be during Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) in 2014, when an uncrewed Orion will be returned from 3,600 miles above Earth's surface. The spacecraft will be traveling at about 340 mph when the parachutes deploy.

EFT-1 will be followed by Exploration Mission-1 in 2017, another unmanned flight but the first to combine Orion with NASA's new big rocket the Space Launch System. The 2017 fllight will be followed by Exploration Mission-2, which will launch Orion and a crew of four astronauts on a space mission. 

"The tests continue to become more challenging, and the parachute system is proving the design's redundancy and reliability," said Chris Johnson, NASA's project manager for the Orion parachute assembly system. "Testing helps us gain confidence and balance risk to ensure the safety of our crew."