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Orion Space Capsule Emergency Abort System Motor Test-Fired

By | November 24, 2008

      The abort motor for the next-generation U.S. spaceship Orion successfully test-fired.

      Once Orion begins manned flights to space in the middle of the next decade, if a crisis occurs in the Ares rocket launching the Orion space capsule, the abort motor — a rocket mounted above the capsule — would fire, lifting the capsule up and away from the Ares rocket, taking astronauts away from harm.

      NASA, Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB] and Alliant Techsystems, Inc. [ATK] successfully performed the ground firing test at the ATK facility in Promontory, Utah.

      This major milestone brings the program one step closer to completion of the Orion spacecraft that will replace the shuttle.

      In the 1980s, Space Shuttle Challenger suffered a rocket explosion when O rings failed, leading to loss of the shuttle orbiter vehicle and crew of seven.

      With the Orion abort system, sensors would detect such a problem and fire the abort motor instantly, whisking the space capsule and crew to safety.

      This inaugural test of Orion’s full-scale abort motor marks the first time such a test has been conducted since the Apollo Program tested its launch escape system in the 1960s. This demonstration was the culmination of a series of motor and component tests conducted earlier this year in preparation for the Pad Abort-1 Flight Test, which will test the abort system’s capabilities using a full-scale crew module mockup.

      The abort motor, which stands more than 17 feet tall and spans three feet in diameter, has a manifold with four exhaust nozzles. It was fixed into a vertical test stand with its nozzles pointing skyward. Upon ignition, the abort motor fired for five seconds with the exhaust plume flames reaching up to 100 feet in height. The high-impulse motor was specifically developed so the majority of its propellant would be expended in the first three seconds, delivering the half million pounds of thrust needed to pull the crew module safely away from its launch vehicle.

      Unlike Apollo, Orion’s abort motor utilizes a composite case, and exhaust turn-flow technology rather than a tower, which results in weight savings, improved performance and improved success in crew survival during an abort. Instead of the rocket plume exiting straight out a nozzle at the aft end, the manifold is placed at the forward end of the motor. The rocket thrust enters the manifold and is turned 155 degrees exiting out the four nozzles, creating a forward-pulling force.

      A series of earlier tests were performed leading up to this first full-scale demonstration. Those earlier tests included:

      • Five subscale test firings incorporating reverse flow technology.
      • Full-scale hydroproof and superproof operation pressure tests were conducted on the composite case, igniter bottle and manifold.
      • During casting, the propellant was tested to ensure the chemistry met abort motor requirements.

      ATK is responsible for the launch abort motor through a contract to Orbital, which is responsible for integrating the LAS motor for Lockheed, the Orion prime contractor. The Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) program is managed out of NASA Langley Research Center, near Hampton, Va.

      The Orion crew exploration vehicle sits atop the Ares I crew launch vehicle. The Orion features an advanced capsule design with state-of-the-art technology that will transport humans to and from the International Space Station, the moon and other destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

      The next major milestone is the Pad Abort-1 Flight Test, scheduled to take place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico next spring. A series of LAS ground and flight tests are planned over the next several years that support the first operational flight of Orion and Ares I scheduled for 2015.

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