NASA tests abort system on astronaut capsule built for moon missions

Orion test scheduled Tuesday morning from Cape Canaveral

The goal of the Orion abort system's test launch is to send the mock crew module 31,000 feet into the sky, then purposely abort the capsule in a simulated in-flight emergency.

The Space Launch System rocket that will carry Orion to space will be the most powerful engine ever used, which means a more powerful launch abort system is required to keep the crew safe in the event of a problem.

A team is collecting the 12 data recorders that were ejected during the test capsules descent. An unpiloted test flight of the SLS booster and Orion capsule is planned for late next year or early 2021 followed by a piloted flight of an Orion capsule carrying astronauts around the moon in the 2022 timeframe.

"The Space and Missile Systems Center partnered with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems to provide a refurbished Peacekeeper booster for this momentous test mission", said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of SMC's Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Nasa aims to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024 using its still-in-development Space Launch System rocket.

The launch abort system is created to pull an Orion capsule and its crew to safety from the launch pad through all phases of powered flight.

A test version of the crew module will launch from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The abort system performed as expected.

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That abort - dubbed "a successful failure" by officials - was "a good message to all of us: this is serious stuff", NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik said in a prelaunch news conference.

The first uncrewed launch of Orion is now slated for next year, with the crewed version - including the full launch abort system - set to launch in 2023.

The tower-like abort structure consists of two parts: the fairing assembly, which is a shell composed of a lightweight composite material that protects the capsule from the heat, air flow and acoustics of the launch, ascent, and abort environments; and the launch abort tower, which includes the abort motor, attitude control motor, and jettison motor.

At NASAs Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians are preparing to attach the Orion crew and service modules before testing at the agencys Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, later this year. But before any of the piloted missions can fly, engineers must verify the performance of the launch abort system developed by Orion-builder Lockheed Martin.

A little over 20 seconds later, the jettison motor pulled the capsule away from the rocket. From there the astronauts can use another vehicle to descend to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. The abort system is created to pull an Orion moon capsule, hidden from view inside an aerodynamic shroud, safely away from a malfunctioning booster during an actual climb to space.

"We're not expecting it to stay intact when it hits", Jenny Devolites, the NASA test manager, said during the prelaunch briefing.

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