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NASA successfully launches test of new Orion capsule abort system

By
Paul Brinkmann
NASA Orion test for launch abort system in Florida on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of NASA
NASA Orion test for launch abort system in Florida on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., July 2 (UPI) -- NASA successfully tested its new Orion launch abort system in Florida on Tuesday morning as part of its planned Artemis human spaceflight missions to the moon and possibly Mars.

The test was part of NASA's certification of the new Orion spacecraft, a component of its Space Launch System, designed to carry humans into space and bring them back safely.

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In live video of the unmanned launch, the firing of the abort structure atop the capsule was seen detaching the capsule from the booster, flipping it around. Another flash of smoke and light was seen separating the capsule from the abort structure. The capsule, abort structure and rocket booster fell into the Atlantic Ocean after the test.

NASA calls the abort system the fastest-accelerating launch abort system ever designed, a big improvement over the Apollo system of the 1960s and '70s.

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The test carried a model of the capsule on top of a refurbished first-stage rocket engine from a Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile.

It lifted off from Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The goal of the launch was to collect data. In a news conference following the launch, Don Reed, NASA's manager of the Orion Program's Flight Test Management, said the abort structure accelerated 260 mph faster than booster was carrying the rocket, bringing the capsule's speed to over 1000 mph breifly.

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Reed said telemetry was lost for five seconds, but all data recorders recovered by 8:10 am.

"We couldn't have asked for a better flight, better mission, better performance," Reed said.

Telemetry was monitored from the historic Hangar AE, built in 1959, which first supported the Air Force's Thor missile program. NASA acquired the building from the Air Force in 1960 and modified it for unmanned missions. Its Mission Director's Center underwent a major upgrade in 2017 to provide 34-inch ultrahigh-definition monitors, allowing senior managers to see video, voice and data all on one screen.

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The biggest advance is an attitude control motor that allows proper orientation of the capsule after it breaks off the rocket itself. That allows a broader range of conditions under which the abort system will work to safely remove astronauts from the dangerous, fuel-filled rocket.

The launch was expected to eject 12 data recorders into the ocean separately to provide more data as a backup. NASA should be able to pick them up quickly using homing signal beacons, said Jenny Devolites, the space agency's conductor for the test, called Ascent Abort-2.

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