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Orion completes another parachute drop test

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jul 20, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA successfully completed another parachute drop test of its Orion test capsule on July 18. The test took place in the Arizona desert and takes Orion another step toward its first unmanned test flight in 2014.

NASA is developing the Orion spacecraft - the "Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle" to give its long name - to be able to take astronauts to Mars.

The Orion test craft was dropped by a C-17 plane from 25,000 feet. This was the second time a test version of the craft, the same size and shape as Orion, was dropped and landed by parachute. Different types of parachutes are used during the various phases of descent.

The main objective of the latest drop test was to see what would happen if one of the three main parachutes inflated too quickly. The test found that Orion descended at about 25 feet per second, well below its maximum designed touchdown speed, when it landed on the desert floor.

"Today's parachute test in Yuma is an important reminder of the progress being made on Orion and its ultimate mission - enabling NASA to meet the goal of sending humans to an asteroid and Mars" said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA

Orion is a conical shaped craft similar to the Moon spacecraft Apollo, and would be launched atop NASA's next big rocket the Space Launch System (SLS).

The first unmanned flight test is due to take place in 2014, and several drop tests have already been performed.


The Orion team loads a test version of the spacecraft into a C-17 in preparation for a parachute drop test in Arizona. Credit: NASA

The 2014 test flight will be unmanned and will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Sation in Florida. The spacecraft will be blasted 3,600 miles into space - 15 times farther than the orbit of the space station. The test flight should see Orion reach speeds of more than 20,000 mph before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. This test will provide engineers with data on Orion’s performance during launch, re-entry and landing. The re-entry will enable NASA to assess the performance of its heat shield.

VIDEO: view an animation of the planned 2014 test flight

In 2017 NASA plan to launch Orion atop the Space Launch System rocket. 

Whilst NASA concentrates on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion for deep space missions, its strategy for transporting crew and cargo to Low Earth Orbit and the International Space Station is to use commercial companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.