In a key test for the Artemis moon program, NASA launched a dummy Orion capsule Tuesday and then triggered the abort system created to carry a crew to safety in the event of a catastrophic booster failure.
Following takeoff, the Orion crew capsule cruised to an altitude of roughly six miles, where it experienced some high-stress aerodynamic conditions that typically arise during ascent. "The abort sequence triggered and, within milliseconds, the abort motor fired to pull the crew module away from the rocket", NASA said later. Then, the attitude control motor turned the capsule end-over-end to make sure it oriented properly, which caused the jettison motor to fire and the crew capsule to be released for a safe landing in the Atlantic Ocean. As a backup, 12 small recorders, each one carrying a complete set of sensor data, were to be ejected two at a time during the plunge back to Earth. Analysis of the information will provide insight into the abort systems performance. It will be an uncrewed test created to replicate a real launch, but it won't be launched on top of the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA's next-gen rocket, as is now planned for lunar missions.
2010's Pad Abort Test 1 checked out how an early version of the thing would work from the launch pad.
The biggest advance is an attitude control motor that allows proper orientation of the capsule after it breaks off the rocket itself.
This is the USA equivalent of an emergency system used last October to bring a Russian cosmonaut and a U.S. astronaut safely back to earth when a problem emerged with their Soyuz rocket shortly after liftoff from Kazakhstan.
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Officials at Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion program, have hailed the White House's plans, and said Tuesday's test cleared a major hurdle.
The test was created to verify the abort system would work as required in a worst-case scenario, when an SLS booster will be subjected to the most extreme aerodynamic forces during an actual climb to space.
Tuesday's test represents "a really great, great step forward today for the team", Mr Kirasich said. The entire test lasted 3 minutes and 13 seconds. The launch abort motors, generating 400,000 pounds of thrust, then pulled the Orion capsule away from the rocket which was already traveling almost 1,000 miles per hour.
NASA says this is "the only opportunity to test a fully active LAS during ascent before flying crew", highlighting the importance of the mission for future deep space exploration. "The neat part is, the next time this full launch abort system flies there will be crew underneath it in Artemis 2".
The rocket launched as the day brightened in Florida.
Nasa has awarded the contract for the power and propulsion elements of the mission, but other companies are vying to build the lander and the Gateway habitat.