January 14, 2016 – A dart-shaped test vehicle descended from the skies above the Arizona desert under Orion’s parachutes Wednesday, January 13, successfully completing the final development test of the parachute system. NASA engineers evaluated modifications to the system for the last time before the start of qualification testing for Orion missions with astronauts.
During the test, engineers demonstrated that when the spacecraft is traveling faster during descent than in previous tests, Orion’s parachutes can properly deploy and withstand high-inflation loads. The dart-shaped vehicle allows engineers to simulate faster descent conditions than the capsule-shaped test article that has been used in many previous evaluations. The test also evaluated new, lighter-weight suspension line material for the parachutes saving a significant amount of mass.
“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. “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.”
During Wednesday’s test, a C-17 aircraft dropped the test vehicle from its cargo bay while flying 30,000 feet over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona. NASA conducts the tests at the proving ground because of the capabilities of airdrop testing that exists there, and the ability for engineers to gather detailed video and photo imagery from chase aircraft to analyze how all of the parachute system’s mechanisms work, including how mortars fire and the parachutes unfurl and descend.
Orion’s parachute system is a critical part of returning future crews who will travel to deep space on the journey to Mars and return to Earth in the spacecraft. The first parachutes deploy when the crew module is traveling more than 300 mph, and in a matter of minutes, the remaining parachute system slows the vehicle and enables it to splash down in the ocean at about 20 mph.
The system is composed of 11 total parachutes that deploy in a precise sequence. Three parachutes pull off Orion’s forward bay cover, which protects the top of the crew module — where the packed parachutes reside — from the heat of reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. Two drogues then deploy to slow the capsule and steady it. Three pilot parachutes then pull out the three orange and white mains, on which Orion rides for the final 8,000 feet of its descent. Orion’s main parachutes are packed to the density of oak wood to fit in the top part of the spacecraft, but once fully inflated cover almost an entire football field.
The test was the seventh in the developmental series. In July, engineers will begin qualifying Orion’s parachute system for flights with astronauts. The series will encompass eight drop tests over a three year-period.