Data gathered from the NASA Orion flight test, conducted last year, has yielded valuable results for the engineers of the Mars-bound mission. Engineers are now using the information to build the next generation of Orion.
On December 5, 2014, the Orion was launched from the Space Launch Complex Flight Test in Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the aim of testing the many safety systems installed in the spacecraft, as well as the mechanisms that are vital for a safe and successful re-entry. The test was considered a success by many, considering that the spacecraft was able to land safely back in Earth after a two-orbit, four-and-a-half-hour flight.
Engineers at the Kennedy Space Center are now tearing apart the spacecraft they so meticulously assembled in order to gain up-close information on how well each part of the spacecraft functioned. By comparing Orion’s actual flight to the pre-flight models calculated late last year, NASA seeks to improve upon their ability to accurately predict spaceflight and to safely deliver astronauts to Mars. Specifically, a main objective of this mission was to test reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
To assimilate the re-entry as closely as possible, Orion was launched aboard a Delta IV heavy rocket to a distance of 3,600 miles from our surface. Engineers wanted to check how well the vehicle could handle the extreme temperatures, speeds and conditions of space – all of which are part of every spacecraft’s re-entry into its atmosphere and its return to Earth.
Orion is a NASA project, aiming to send the farthest manned mission to outer space by 2030. To do so, the expedition will send a crew to an asteroid first and eventually to the red planet, Mars. If successful, this will be the first deep space journey of its kind. As such, one of the biggest concerns is the safety of the crew and the data gathered once they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. With harsh conditions, including but not limited to heat, speed and radiation, the un-manned test flight was needed to gather data that will assure the spacecraft’s integrity upon its return to Earth. It utilized over 1,000 computerized sensors to gather data on avionics, or the spacecraft’s electronic systems, altitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.
Michael Hawes, Orion Program manager for Lockheed Martin, which is NASA’s contractor for Orion, said that the heat shield was “in great shape” after the test flight. It has already been subjected to a total laser scan to get better engineering information on how the heat shield worked during the test. Lockheed Martin has also gathered core samples for further study. Next, the shield structure will be sent to Hampton, Virginia’s Langley Research Center for water impact testing.
Hawes also said that the Launch Abort Systems and protective fairings disengaged within fractions of a second as scheduled; the parachutes worked well, which ensured the safe touchdown on open water, and the 3-D vent that was produced through the additive manufacturing process operated satisfactorily, which may lead to more parts for the spacecraft being produced in this manner.
The only component of the test flight that is raising concerns right now is the airbags that serve to stabilize the spacecraft after the open water landing. Their function is to keep Orion upright while until a recovery team is able to reach it. However, only two out of five inflated – an event NASA engineers believe is caused by malfunction in the bags themselves. The crews are “in the midst of troubleshooting” this issue.
Yet, regardless of the data being positive or negative, the information will definitely be significant in the future design and innovations that will be made to the spacecraft. Thus, the Orion saga, which began 11 years ago, is set to extend well into the 2020’s, with two exploration missions planned in the early to mid 2020’s – both featuring craft with crews.