spaceSpace and Physics

Orion’s Parachutes Are Now Almost Safe For Astronauts To Use


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

669 Orion’s Parachutes Are Now Almost Safe For Astronauts To Use
A drop test took place on Wednesday, January 13, 2016. NASA

NASA has performed the last “development test” of the parachutes for its upcoming Orion spacecraft, which will be used for future manned missions to an asteroid and Mars. Now, the crucial testing to make sure the spacecraft is safe to carry humans can begin.

In this unmanned test, a dart-shaped test vehicle was used in place of the spacecraft itself, traveling at speeds higher than will be expected for Orion, to simulate different re-entry scenarios. This gives NASA a wider safety margin when it eventually starts flying humans on Orion. 


“The completion of this last development test of the parachute system gives us a high degree of confidence that we’ll be successful in certifying the system with the remaining qualification tests for flights with astronauts,” said CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system, in a statement.

“During our development series, we’ve tested all kinds of failure scenarios and extreme descent conditions to refine the design and ensure Orion’s parachutes will work in a variety of circumstances. We’ll verify the system is sound during our qualification tests.”

The test, which took place on Wednesday, involved dropping the test vehicle and the parachutes from a C-17 aircraft at a height of 9,000 meters (30,000 feet). The entire system actually has 11 parachutes, used in a carefully choreographed routine to slow the vehicle down from 480 kilometers per hour (300 mph). When Orion flies with humans on board, it will splash into the ocean upon return at 32 kilometers per hour (20 mph).

Orion successfully launched and returned to Earth in December 2014. NASA


This test was the seventh in the development series. Only one of the unmanned tests involved an actual launch of the Orion spacecraft itself – Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) in December 2014. With this phase completed, NASA will now conduct eight drop tests over the next three years to ensure the system is safe for humans.

The next flight of Orion is not expected until 2018, when it will launch on top of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. In the 2020s, NASA plans to send astronauts on an exploration mission to an asteroid. 

In the 2030s at the earliest, missions to Mars will begin; Orion will be used to take the astronauts into space and return them to Earth, as part of other infrastructure including a habitat and Mars descent and ascent vehicles.

Ensuring the parachutes will safely work in a variety of scenarios is crucial to getting Orion human-rated for these missions, and this latest test is a step towards that goal.


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