NASA announced the successful testing of the parachute system for its Orion spacecraft at an Arizona desert on Wednesday, Aug. 26. The system test was conducted in order to find out its effectivity in the event of partial deployment on the space vehicle's re-entry.
During the test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, a version of the Orion capsule specifically designed for the event was dropped from a C-17 aircraft flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet (over 6.5 miles) in the air. The model capsule of Orion then initiated its sequence for parachute deployment.
The engineering version of the capsule features a similar mass to the Orion spacecraft that is being developed for missions in deep space, as well as identical interfaces with the original's parachute system.
NASA engineers designed a simulated failure scenario wherein one of the model capsule's drogue parachutes, which will be used to slow its descent and stabilize the Orion spacecraft at high altitudes, and one of its main parachutes, which will be used to slow the crew module for Orion to landing speed, did not initiate its deployment sequence.
Project manager CJ Johnson, who is in charge of the parachute system for Orion, said that they test the parachutes for the spacecraft to the extremes in order to ensure that the system can safely bring the crew back to Earth in case of emergencies.
He said that the performance of Orion's parachute is difficult to simulate using computers, and that the system test would allow them to better evaluate and determine how it works.
The test also provided the engineers with an opportunity to evaluate a change to the parachutes' risers, which connect them to the capsule. The risers were switched from steel to a type of textile material and also involved the use of suspension lines that are light weight for several of the capsule's parachutes. The changes were meant to lessen the overall mass of the spacecraft as well as the system's volume.
The parachute system for Orion is a crucial component for the safe return of future crews who are set to journey to an asteroid, to Mars and then make a return trip to Earth in the space vehicle.
The first parachutes of the capsule deploy when its crew module is traveling beyond 300 miles per hour. The complete parachute system allows it to make a safe touch down in the ocean at around 20 miles per hour.
In 2014, the parachute system was subjected to a flight test wherein it performed flawlessly, allowing Orion to reenter the atmosphere and descend toward the Earth. It was able to splash down in the Pacific after traveling around 3,600 miles into space.