NASA's Orion Spacecraft Has Passed a Critical Propulsion Test

NASA is preparing its Orion spacecraft for lunar orbit.
Chris Young
A test version of Orion on July 2, 2019NASA

What happens if a spacecraft encounters problems in the vacuum of space? While space travel can be very dangerous, there are plenty of fail-safes.

NASA, in fact, is carrying out tests to make sure the Orion spacecraft is ready to safely carry crew on an alternate mission profile in the unlikely event that problems occur. 

That was just shown by a successful 12-minute firing of Orion's propulsion system that simulated this possible alternate mission scenario.


Extreme precision

“Inserting Orion into lunar orbit and returning the crew on a trajectory back home to Earth requires extreme precision in both plotting the course and firing the engines to execute that plan,” said Mark Kirasich, program manager for Orion in a statement.

“With each testing campaign we conduct like this one, we’re getting closer to accomplishing our missions to the Moon and beyond.”

Artemis 1, NASA said, will be the first, full test flight of the SLS and Orion. The uncrewed spacecraft will be sent around the Moon.

Following that, Artemis 2 will be the first crewed Artemis space flight.

Getting back to the Moon

Project Artemis is being carried out to pave the way for the first woman and the next man to land on the Moon by 2024. Ultimately, after this, the goal is to get to Mars.

“The tests at White Sands have been very helpful to better understand and operate our service module propulsion system,” said Jim Withrow, project manager for the test article.

“This firing was one of a series of tests performed to date and in the coming months to simulate contingency modes and other stressful flight conditions.”

Abort-to-orbit scenario

As the NASA statement explained, the test simulated what is referred to as an abort-to-orbit scenario.

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Has Passed a Critical Propulsion Test
An artist rendering of NASA's Artemis program. Source: NASA

Essentially it is testing fail-safes in the event that problems occur while in space.

If the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) were unable to set Orion on its trajectory to the Moon, the spacecraft would deliberately separate early from the ICPS and the ESA (European Space Agency).

The rockets that were tested would have the ability to take the crewed module into a temporary, safe orbit. From there, mission control would be able to decide whether to bring the astronauts back to Earth or continue with an alternate mission profile.

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