The manned capsule tested on Tuesday is NASA's Orion, an important spacecraft. Orion is designed to be launched from a rocket, and NASA has been developing a rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS). Together, these spacecraft are used to transport astronauts near the moon as part of NASA's new Artemis project to return humans to the surface of the moon.
But before eventually sending astronauts to the surface of the moon, Orion and SLS need to fly together for the first time. Their first voyage will be a mission called Artemis 1 around the moon. Tuesday's test was the last major milestone Orion had to pass before Artemis 1.
The test will check Orion's Launch Stop System, a special setup that should be activated during flight in an emergency. When the spacecraft is launched on SLS, it looks like a tower stacked on the top of Orion. There are three different motors in the tower. If the rocket starts to malfunction, they will quickly move Orion away from the SLS during flight. The motor carries Orion to the minimum safe distance - usually miles away - and then the parachute can be deployed safely and the vehicle can be lowered to the ground slightly.
"after the Columbia accident, NASA designated that the next human system would need to be 10 times safer than Shuttle when launched," Orion Project Manager Mike Hawes, who is building the capsule, told The Verge.. "the way we make sure of this when we use Orion is to use this launch suspension system." SpaceX and Boeing crew will use a similar system on flights to the International Space Station.
Lockhid Martin tested an earlier version of the suspension system at the Baisha missile test site in New Mexico, but the test was carried out on the ground. NASA wants to see how the system works in the air, which is why it sent Orion to an altitude of 31000 feet for testing. The capsule, which will be launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will be launched with a special rocket booster provided by Northrop Grumman, which will launch the capsule at a speed of more than 1000 miles an hour.
About 55 seconds after launch, the first of the tower's three motors will start, pulling Orion away from the booster. At that moment, the capsule will feel the highest force from atmospheric pressure and high temperature. "It's really a test of how the system works under the highest pressure," Hawes said.
Future astronauts also need to be prepared for a sudden gravity explosion, but they won't feel it for long. NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik explained at a news conference: "7 Gs will give you the fastest attention because it happens very quickly. But the duration is very short. By contrast, the Russian Soyuz capsule currently used by astronauts to travel to and from the International Space Station can reach more than 5 Gs when it descends to Earth.
Once the capsule is separated, a second motor is launched, turning Orion into the air and redirecting it in the desired direction. At this point, the additional Gs begin to fade. Once the system is away from the booster, the last motor will be launched, releasing Orion from the tower and putting it on the ground. During this period of suspension, Orion usually deploys its parachute and drops itself back into the ocean. But for this test, NASA chose not to add parachutes to make the test simpler and cheaper. This means that once the test is over, the capsule will crash into the Atlantic at a speed of 300 miles per hour.
All in all, the whole process will last for three minutes. Many of the sensors on the capsule will be used to collect data, allowing Lockheed Martin to know its performance in the test. Before the Orion falls into the ocean, the capsule will pop up a "black box" containing flight data so that the company can more easily collect them in water.
Once this test is over, Orion's next big task will be Artemis. The flight is now scheduled for the summer of 2020, although a recent audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the mission was most likely to occur in June 2021 because of delays in SLS development. Lockhid Martin still has a lot of tests to do before the flight begins, but Hawes says it plans to hand over the capsule to NASA ground crew by the end of this year.
NASA will begin suspension testing at 7 a.m. Eastern Time Tuesday at a four-hour launch window. The agency plans to broadcast the whole process live from 6:40 a.m. Eastern Time.