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Boeing tests Starliner parachutes ahead of second test flight

Boeing has successfully tested the parachute system of its Starliner spacecraft under extreme conditions, the aerospace giant revealed on Monday, June 29.

Like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, the Starliner is designed to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), but unlike the Crew Dragon, it has yet to do so.

That’s mainly down to delays caused by a failed test flight in December 2019 when a software issue prevented an uncrewed Starliner from reaching the space station.

While it works on fixing the software, Boeing is also focusing on the safety of the spacecraft’s parachute system. Conducted above White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, last week’s parachute test was aimed at validating the parachutes’ performance in dynamic abort conditions.

With astronauts expected to ride aboard the spacecraft, NASA and Boeing have to be absolutely certain that if an abort were to take place early into a launch, the parachutes in Starliner’s landing sequence would inflate in the proper way despite needing to deploy in very different flight conditions compared to a normal landing.

“Parachutes like clean air flow,” Jim Harder, Boeing’s flight conductor, said in a report about the test on Boeing’s website. “They inflate predictably under a wide range of conditions, but in certain ascent aborts, you are deploying these parachutes into more unsteady air where proper inflation becomes less predictable. We wanted to test the inflation characteristics at low dynamic pressure so we can be completely confident in the system we developed.”

Dropped by a high-altitude balloon, the spacecraft’s small parachutes — designed to lift away the Starliner’s forward heat shield — deployed successfully. Ten seconds later, the spacecraft’s two drogue parachutes also opened as expected, inflating perfectly despite the low dynamic pressure.

To push the Starliner to the limit, the team prepped the test so that one of its three main parachutes would fail to open on descent. Despite the engineered fault, the spacecraft was able to land safely a short while later.

Boeing said the data from the parachute test will be analyzed to improve the reliability of the system ahead of crewed flights, the first of which could take place next year following an uncrewed test flight in the fall.

Boeing is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership combining NASA’s experience with new technology created by private companies with the aim of increasing the availability of space travel. The program has already succeeded in returning human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil via the current SpaceX mission to the ISS, with upcoming crewed missions to the moon, and even Mars, also on the horizon.

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