NASA Aces Orion Ascent Abort Test

NASA Aces Orion Ascent Abort Test

NASA’s test of the ascent abort system for its Orion crew capsule went off successfully this morning.  The test demonstrated that the Launch Abort System (LAS) can safely return astronauts to Earth in case of an emergency during launch. Orion and its Space Launch System (SLS) are expected to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit in 2022 for the first time since the end of the Apollo program.

The Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL on time at 7:00 am ET on a rocket motor from a Peacekeeper missile modified by Northrop Grumman.

The Ascent Abort-2 test flight lifts off  from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by James Rainier.  The Launch Abort System (LAS) is at the very top, with the test Orion capsule beneath it and the Northrop Grumman-provided booster at the bottom.

A test model of the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule was used, not an actual Orion spacecraft.  This one had the same dimensions and mass as Orion, but was not outfitted with other systems, such as parachutes.

At mach 1.08 and an altitude of about 31,000 feet, the abort command was issued and the LAS went into action.  It separated the capsule from the rocket and conducted a “flip over” maneuver to point the capsule’s heat shield in the correct direction. The LAS itself then separated from the capsule.   Both then descended and slammed into the ocean.

The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which operates CCAFS (adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center) and was a partner with NASA in this test, tweeted some amazing photos including this one of the ascent abort motor on its way down.

The Launch Abort System of NASA’s Orion capsule descends to the ocean after the Ascent Abort-2 launch on July 2, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by James Rainier.

At a post-launch press briefing, NASA Ascent Abort-2 test director Don Reed said “ascent was nominal,” although the rocket reached the point (“test box”) where the abort was initiated 5 seconds early.  The test lasted 3 minutes and 13 seconds, a bit longer than expected.

The test capsule had 12 data recorders as a backup to the primary communications system that was sending data to the ground throughout the test.  They were ejected during descent and within about an hour all 12 were recovered from the ocean. Reed said they got 100 percent of the required data, which now will be analyzed.  From all appearances right now, the test was a complete success.

The next time the LAS will be used is aboard the Artemis-2 mission.  That is the first flight the SLS/Orion system with a crew (Artemis-1 is an uncrewed test launch).  The current schedule calls for that to take place in 2022.  Artemis-3 will send NASA astronauts to a Gateway space station orbiting the Moon where they will transfer to another vehicle to take them down to and back from the lunar surface.

On March 26, 2019, Vice President Mike Pence, as chairman of the White House National Space Council,  directed NASA to land the next man and the first woman at the Moon’s South Pole by 2024, just five years away.  The program has been named Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

Congress is still waiting for more information about the associated costs before deciding whether to support that plan. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNN it will cost between $20-30 billion over the five years, but so far the Administration has requested only $1.6 billion as a supplement to NASA’s original FY2020 budget request of $21 billion.

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