NASA will test the emergency escape system for Orion, the next-generation spacecraft which will hopefully carry humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. You’ll be able to watch the test live starting at 4 a.m. PT on Tuesday.
In a period of dwindling public support for the expense of space exploration, NASA is putting the safety of astronauts at the forefront to avoid a tragedy like the Challenger disaster of 1986, in which a shuttle exploded minutes after launch and killed seven crew members on board. Since then, technology such as the system being tested on Tuesday has developed to make launches much safer for astronauts.
The Ascent Abort-2 flight test will test the escape system which a crew would use in the event of an emergency during the launch of an Orion mission. The crew escape system is a module attached the to top of the rocket, and if something goes wrong during a launch, it is designed to be propelled away from the rocket and to safety.
The test dovetails with NASA’s aim of bringing manned spacecraft launches back to U.S. soil. After the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, launches happened mostly from Russia, to the chagrin of some Americans. With SpaceX and Boeing beginning their own launch programs, there have been commercial launches from the U.S. in the intervening years. But NASA has been aiming to bring back manned launches to its home country for many years, and this project represents a further step along that path.
In order to test the safety of the crew module, NASA will launch the module attached to a weight which simulates the Orion rocket. At 55 seconds after launch, when it is 31,000 feet in the air, the abort sequence will be initiated. At this point, the abort motor is activated, which pushes the crew module away from the weight.
Technicians will observe to see whether the attitude control motor then reorients the craft and the jettison motor fires to safely separate from the crew module. The final part of the test is the jettisoning of the data recorders so that technicians on the ground can collect the data they need.
A big challenge of the test is in its timing, as there is a window of just milliseconds between the initiation of the abort sequence and the safe jettisoning of the crew module for a valid test. This represents the speed and accuracy which would be required in a real emergency during launch.
There is a four-hour launch window for the test, beginning at 4 a.m. PT on July 2. The coverage on the NASA livestream begins at 6:40 a.m. and you can watch it using the video above.
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