From the Utah desert erupted a plume of both fire and smoke last June 15, as aerospace company Orbital ATK successfully conducted a ground firing test of a rocket motor created for NASA’s Orion human spacecraft.
The abort motor forms part of Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS), deemed a breakthrough in spaceflight safety as it would bring the crew capsule back to safety once something goes haywire or malfunctions with the primary rocket.
The static test fire was held on time at 3 p.m. EDT at Orbital ATK’s facility in Corine, Utah. The motor’s specially designed test stand led the desired columns of flame to shoot from the engine’s four nozzles toward the sky and to reach an anticipated 100-feet height.
“We at Orbital ATK are very proud to work with NASA and Lockheed Martin on the Orion Launch Abort System, and to provide a motor that is so integral to astronaut safety. The importance of our crews’ safety and well-being can’t be stressed enough,” said Charlie Precourt, VP and general manager of propulsion systems at Orbital ATK.
This company also designs and builds the twin solid rocket boosters for the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s next-gen heavy-lift rocket.
In a Space.com report, Orbital ATK’s launch abort motor program director Steve Sara dubbed it “a great test.” The test lasted five seconds or the length of the time that the engine needs to fire during an emergency situation.
The abort system will hurl the Orion spacecraft away from the SLS rocket in case the latter explodes.
According to Orbital ATK, the abort motor stands over 17 feet, spans 3 feet in diameter, and could provide 400,000 pounds of thrust in a mere 0.125 seconds. Boasting of a manifold with four exhaust nozzles, it can jettison the crew capsule to up to 300,000 feet high.
The test also comprised a greater number of acoustic sensors versus earlier tests, as acoustic vibrations from the engine are proven hostile to other systems onboard the Orion. Data from the test will prompt engineers to adapt the Orion’s systems accordingly.
Toward NASA’s Space Ambitions
The milestone is considered a step closer to Orion’s first flight on top of the SLS, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), and helping NASA astronauts reach the moon, planet Mars, and other places beyond low-Earth orbit.
The first in a series, the abort motor test will be followed by two more that will occur in late 2018 and in 2019. The latter, called the Ascent Abort-2 Flight Test (AA-2), will test flight conditions and will involve a mock spacecraft and a rocket to play the role of an SLS rocket.
NASA announced that the Orion spacecraft will be sent on an unmanned journey around the moon in 2019, which will also mark the maiden test flight of the SLS.
While it had an earlier plan of a crewed mission, the agency said it is already too late into the mission planning schedule to accommodate changes from its original intent for the EM-1, which was designed for an uncrewed first flight for testing the entire system’s capabilities.
The unmanned Orion mission is expected to last about three weeks.
"After weighing the data and assessing all implications, the agency will continue pursuing the original plan for the first launch, as a rigorous flight test of the integrated systems without crew," stated NASA officials.