Today, NASA will drop its Orion crew capsule out of a plane flying at 35,000 feet over the Arizona desert, and two of its five parachutes will fail. On purpose.
Orion is the next generation of NASA spacecraft that will take humans into space — and perhaps on to Mars. But deep space exploration is only part of the capsule’s mission — Orion is also responsible for bringing astronauts back home again. And so NASA needs to know that the capsule can return its crew safely, even when drastic failures occur. Tomorrow's test will help the space agency determine if the parachute system is safe enough to allow humans aboard.
NASA needs to know that the capsule can return its crew safely, even when drastic failures occur
The craft is designed to carry up to four astronauts into lower Earth orbit and beyond. It will ride into space atop the Space Launch System (SLS) — a monster rocket NASA is currently building to facilitate deep-space exploration. The plan is to send astronauts in the Orion to near-Earth asteroids, and then farther on to Mars by the mid 2030s.
Orion is equipped with three main parachutes and two drogue chutes — smaller, specialized parachutes used to control rapidly moving vehicles. Together, these parachutes slow the spacecraft's fall from 20,000 miles per hour to just 20 miles per hour, so the capsule can safely splash in the ocean. First, the drogue parachutes deploy to stabilize the capsule during its fall. Then, the three main parachutes open, slowing the vehicle down from supersonic speeds.
NASA already knows the Orion’s landing system works when all of its parachutes deploy. The space agency conducted an uncrewed flight test of the Orion vehicle on December 5th, 2014, in which the vehicle orbited Earth twice before reentering the planet's atmosphere. The parachutes went off without a hitch, and the capsule gently splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
But complex systems have a lot of parts that can break — which means a lot of things can go wrong. NASA wants to know if the Orion can keep its crew alive in the unlikely event that some of its parachutes fail. Tomorrow, only one of the drogue chutes and only two of the three main parachutes will open. If the Orion still lands gently, that means NASA can move forward with the vehicle’s testing, and — just maybe — send it to space with humans inside.
A 3D-rendering of the Orion capsule in space. (NASA)