NASA conducts successful test of largest ever parachutes at YPG
YUMA PROVING GROUND - On what turned out to be a good morning to drop stuff out the back of an airplane, NASA and industry engineers successfully conducted a drop test of the three main parachutes for the Ares I rocket.
"The successful main chute cluster test today confirms the development and design changes we have implemented for the Ares I first stage recovery system," said Ron King, Ares I first stage deceleration subsystem manager for the Ares Projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "Thanks to our great, collaborative team, the test went as anticipated, and all of our design objectives were met."
According to NASA's Jennifer Morcone, the test was the eighth in an ongoing series of tests in the development of the parachute system that will be used to recover the solid rocket booster engines and capsule for the next generation of NASA's manned spacecraft as part of its Constellation Program.
Currently NASA is in the process of designing two rocket boosters, the Ares I and the Ares V. The Ares I booster rocket will launch the Orion Crew Vehicle, which is similar in design to the Project Apollo capsule, to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, the Moon, and eventually Mars.
The Ares V will be designed to launch other hardware for use on missions and will have a heavier lift capacity than the Ares I booster.
In addition to these two boosters, NASA is also designing a set of other spacecraft for use during Constellation. These will include the Orion crew capsule, the Earth Departure Stage and the Altair lunar lander. Orion will replace the space shuttle program which will end in 2010.
Morcone said NASA has placed a high priority on having the Ares rocket system fully developed by 2015. There will be a five-year period following the retirement of the shuttle where the U.S. will not have a spaceship to carry explorers into orbit.
Cary Ralston, vice-president of space launch propulsion for ATK Space Systems, which built the rocket booster, said the parachute system is designed to slow the descent of the Ares I rocket booster, allowing it to be recovered, refurbished and reused.
"This test is just to see how the three chutes perform together as a cluster," Ralston said. "The main objective of the test is to determine the degradation coefficient. When you have three chutes operating together in a cluster each is robbing the other of a little bit of drag."
Other test objectives, he said, included measuring individual parachute loads and behavior, and observing the deployment from the parachute bags.
"There is a wide variety of instrumentation that will transmit data back to testers to determine how each chute performs," Ralston said.
Also part of the parachute deceleration system is a pilot chute and a drogue chute. Deployed in a cluster, the three main chutes open at the same time.
Ralston said the Ares I rocket utilizes parachutes similar to those used for the four-segment space shuttle booster, but have been redesigned to accommodate new the requirements of the Ares I.
Dramatically larger and more powerful than the shuttle's boosters, Ralston said the Ares I will have a five-segment solid rocket booster - causing it to fall faster from a much higher altitude after separation.
The parachutes being tested were designed and manufactured by the United Space Alliance at the Kennedy Space Center under a subcontract to ATK.
Ralston said the three main chutes are the largest of their type in the world, each measuring 150 feet in diameter and weighing 2,000 pounds each.
The test was conducted by dropping a 41,500 pound weight from a U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
After free falling for about 25 seconds, the three main chutes deployed at an altitude of about 4,500 feet and lowered the test weight safely to the desert floor. The parachutes and all of the test hardware functioned properly, according to NASA.
"The drop testing is necessary because it is the only way we have to validate the design, strength, capacity and performance of the parachutes," King said.
To date, ATK has conducted three pilot chute tests, two drogue chute tests and two single main parachute tests. According to ATK spokeswoman Trina Patterson, this was the first cluster parachute test.
The next test in the cycle, according to Patterson, is scheduled for the fall, and will involve the first design limit load of a single main parachute.
Ralston added another significant milestone in the testing will occur this fall when the new parachute system is used for the first time operationally during the flight test of Ares I-X, a full scale vehicle with an inert upper stage.
James Gilbert Keller can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854.