The NASA Orion Ascent Abort-2 test launched from Cape Canaveral, demonstrating the abort system that will keep astronauts safe. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

JThe critical launch abort system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft was put to its hardest test this week and demonstrated its capability to pull the crew module and future astronauts to safety during a launch if there is an emergency. The Ascent Abort-2 flight test is a major test milestone that is enabling the safe passage of astronauts aboard Orion on the Artemis missions to the Moon and then Mars.

During the approximately three-minute test on Tuesday, a mock-up of the Orion crew module launched at 5 a.m. MDT from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a modified Peacekeeper missile.

The Orion test spacecraft traveled to an altitude of 31,000 feet, or about six miles, at which point it was moving at nearly 1,000 mph and experiencing the high-stress aerodynamic conditions expected during ascent. The abort sequence was then initiated by on-board computers and within milliseconds, the launch abort motors, generating 400,000 pounds of thrust, pulled the Orion capsule away from the rocket. Using its attitude control motor, the abort system then reoriented itself before it jettisoned the crew module for splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

“The test flight performed perfectly, not to mention, it was really exciting to watch,” said Mike Hawes,” Orion program manager for Lockheed Martin Space. “Hopefully, this will be the last time we see this launch abort system ever work, but this test brings confidence that if needed on future Orion missions, it will safely pull the crew module and astronauts away from a life-threatening event during launch.”

Lockheed Martin designed and built the launch abort system for the test and is also the prime contractor building the Orion spacecraft for NASA. 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.

The Orion launch abort system is the highest thrust and acceleration escape system ever developed and is the only system of its kind in the world. The system is built specifically for deep space missions and makes the Orion exploration-class spaceship the safest spacecraft ever built.

“Launching into space is one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of going to the Moon,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This test mimicked some of the most challenging conditions Orion will ever face should an emergency develop during the ascent phase of flight.”

This is the second time the Orion launch abort system has been put to the test. The first flight test was in 2010 simulating a static abort from the launch pad. AA-2 is the final test and demonstration of the full-up launch abort system.

NASA was able to accelerate the test schedule and lower costs by simplifying the test spacecraft and eliminating parachutes and related systems. NASA and Lockheed Martin already qualified the parachute system for crewed flights through an extensive series of 17 developmental tests and eight qualification tests completed at the end of 2018.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft for the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission is being developed at the NASA Kennedy Space Center and will soon head into environmental testing – all in preparation for its first integrated mission with the SLS rocket in 2020.

NASA recently reached major milestones for the SLS rocket, assembling four of the five parts that will make up the massive core state that will launch Artemis 1, and delivering the four engines that will be integrated into the core stage, along with the engine section, later this summer.

Orion is part of NASA’s backbone for a new era of deep space exploration, along with the SLS and Gateway. Through NASA’s Artemis program, the U.S. intends to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.

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