NASA said Thursday, 13 September, that it successfully completed the final test to qualify Orion spacecraft's parachute system for flights with astronauts, in an important milestone on the path to send humans on missions to the Moon and beyond.
Over the course of eight tests in Arizona, engineers evaluated the performance of Orion's parachute system during normal landing sequences as well as several failure scenarios, NASA said in a statement.
They also tested a variety of potential aerodynamic conditions to ensure astronauts can return safely from deep space missions.
"We're working incredibly hard not only to make sure Orion's ready to take our astronauts farther than we've been before, but to make sure they come home safely," said Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich.
"The parachute system is complex, and evaluating the parachutes repeatedly through our test series gives us confidence that we'll be ready for any kind of landing day situation," Kirasich said.
The system has 11 parachutes, a series of cannon-like mortars, pyrotechnic bolt cutters, and more than 30 miles of Kevlar lines attaching the top of the spacecraft to the 36,000 square feet of parachute canopy material.
In about 10 minutes of descent through Earth's atmosphere, everything must deploy in precise sequence to slow Orion and its crew from about 300 miles per hour to a relatively gentle 20 mph for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, NASA said.
The parachute system is the only system that must assemble itself mid-air and must be able to keep the crew safe in several failure scenarios, such as mortar failures that prevent a single parachute type to deploy, or conditions that cause some of the parachute textile components to fail, it said.
During the final test, which took place on September 12, a mock Orion was pulled out from the cargo bay of a C-17 aircraft flying higher than 6.5 miles.
The protective ring around the top of Orion that covers the parachute system was jettisoned and pulled away by the first set of Orion's parachutes, then the remaining parachutes were deployed in precise sequence, according to NASA.
Additionally, Orion parachute engineers have also provided considerable insight and data to NASA's Commercial Crew Program partners.
The knowledge gained through the Orion program has enabled NASA to mature computer modelling of how the system works in various scenarios and help partner companies understand certain elements of parachute systems.
Orion will first fly with astronauts aboard during Exploration Mission-2, a mission that will venture near the Moon and farther from Earth than ever before, launching atop NASA's Space Launch System rocket – which will be the world's most powerful rocket.