When Rocket Launches Go Wrong, This Engine Kicks On

Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc.

Look, we all want the Orion crew capsule and its astronauts to safely launch into space and beyond — Mars! — in only a few years’ time. But if history is any indication, things don’t always go smoothly during initial flights, even after months of testing. Mechanical failures or worse can put a mission off-track and endanger the lives of astronauts. Which is why the photo released today is such a big deal.

What you’re looking at is a test of one of three separate motors that make up the Launch Abort System that’s on the Orion crew capsule. To hear the people at Sacramento-based Aerojet Rocketdyne explain it, the system “can activate within milliseconds to propel the capsule away from danger and position the crew module for a safe ocean landing.”

The image below, released by Aerojet, is a test of the jettison motor, which is the third-and-final motor to activate in the event of a mission-abort. The jettison motor separates the LAS from the Orion crew capsule so that parachutes can be deployed for a water landing. (Here’s the splashy footage of a recent Orion water test landing.)

But before the jettison motor kicks, the abort motor first must pull the Orion crew module away from the rocket, and then the Orbital ATK-built attitude control motor steers Orion away.

Third development jettison motor for NASA’s Orion Launch Abort System fires for 1.5 seconds at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Sacramento, California.Aerojet Rocketdyne

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s jettison motor is the only LAS motor that will be activated on Orion’s test flight, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), an uncrewed mission scheduled for 2018. During the three-week EM-1 mission, Orion will travel about 40,000 miles beyond the moon and return to Earth.

On Wednesday, the jettison motor fired for 1.5 seconds — the time needed to separate the LAS from Orion so that parachutes can be deployed for a safe landing. Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin acquired key data during this test, including pressure, temperature, thrust, acceleration and strain measurements.

“The first crewed flight of the Orion spacecraft is just around the corner,” said Roger McNamara, Lockheed Martin Launch Abort System director, in a statement about the test. “The Launch Abort System is such an important safety feature; it’s great to see progress happening.”

Here’s a video. Careful, it’s a bit loud:

Meanwhile, the Orion capsule, in preparation for that 2018 mission aboard the Space Launch System rocket, is undergoing welding in a clean room at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Propulsion lines — metal tubes — are being fitted onto the crew capsule so that hydrazine can flow into Orion’s thrusters as it travels into deep space.

The Orion crew module for Exploration Mission 1 was transferred into the clean room inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center in late July to begin installation of the spacecraft's critical systems, including propellant lines.NASA
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