2016 to be a Busy Year for SLS as 6 Orion Milestones Approach
This year, NASA will try to meet critical milestones on their journey to Mars for the Orion capsule -- the spacecraft that will send astronauts to deep space and on to Mars.
Here’s a look at some of the significant milestones and testing set for 2016.
1. Pressure Vessel Welding
Early in 2016, technicians at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans will finish welding together Orion’s pressure vessel, which will provide a sealed environment for astronaut life support in future human-rated crew modules, before shipping it to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Once there, engineers will start testing it to make sure the structure is sound and can endure the harsh conditions it will meet in deep space when it travels thousands of miles beyond the moon on the first integrated mission of Orion and SLS, known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
Following a pressure proof test, the team will then outfit the crew module with all of the avionics and systems the spacecraft will need before being integrated with the SLS rocket and readied for launch.
2. Acoustic Load Testing
At Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for Orion, engineers will evaluate a new acoustic technology called Direct Field Acoustic Testing.
The idea is to test and simulate the acoustic loads Orion will experience during launch and ascent by using customized, high-energy speakers configured in a circle around the crew module flown in space in 2014.
By putting these speakers around the capsule, engineers will be able to control how much energy reaches the spacecraft and determine if they can accurately simulate acoustic loads and vibrations the capsule will experience.
If the method proves to be an accurate representation of launch and ascent acoustic loads, it will be used to evaluate and verify Orion’s ability to withstand those loads for EM-1.
3. Structural Integrity Testing
In November 2015, a full scale representative model of the Orion service module built by Airbus and provided by ESA arrived at NASA's Plum Brook Station, a part of the Glenn Research Center.
This structure -- NASA calls it a 'Test Article' -- will be put through a series of tests to verify the structural integrity and ability to withstand launches atop the SLS rocket.
First, in February, one of the service module’s solar array wings will be deployed to make sure it unfurls and retracts properly.
After that, the system will be moved to an acoustic chamber at Plum Brook to be pummeled with noise -- simulating the acoustic energy it will experience during launch -- and then moved to a mechanical vibration facility to simulate the shaking it will experience during launch.
To ensure the testing is as accurate and complete as possible, the system will be attached to a full scale structural model of the crew module adapter provided by Lockheed Martin.
4. Splashdown Impact Testing
In the spring, at NASA Langley Research Center’s Hydro Impact Basin, NASA will mimic some of the most stressful water landing conditions Orion will experience.
Langley engineers have outfitted a test version of the crew module with Orion’s heat shield that flew in space. This will give a full size representation of the capsule as hits the water on splashdown
They have also strapped in two test dummies to help simulate -- and evaluate -- the loads a crew may experience during real missions.
5. Parachute Testing
Orion’s parachutes are essential to a successful mission, ensuring the capsule can slow down from its high-speed reentry to a relatively gentle 20 mph before splashdown.
The Orion team has been developing a system of 11 parachutes for just this purpose.
This year, in the skies above the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the team will begin qualifying the parachute system for crewed flights.
But the tests this summer are only the beginning.
The parachute team is scheduled for a total of eight integrated drop tests over the next three years.
6. Systems Integration
More than 30 flight-subsystem deliveries to Kennedy are planned in 2016 for installation into Orion.
Antennas, beacons, navigation equipment, vision processing, power management, data processing and vehicle management components -- all will complete manufacturing and testing this year to support the initial power-on of the EM-1 Orion spacecraft at Kennedy in early 2017.
The hardware is undergoing many “test like you fly” demonstrations to ensure their success during EM-1. These demonstrations include tests of the most challenging mission and environmental requirements the spacecraft has ever seen.
At Lockheed Martin’s Orion Test Lab in Littleton, Colorado, a full-scale Orion mockup is being used for integrated system level testing.
The lab contains development copies of all EM-1 avionics, power and wiring hardware and will provide over a year’s worth of mission simulation testing and debugging prior to Orion’s power on at Kennedy.
2016 looks to be a busy year for Orion. These 6 Orion milestones and tests are only part of the overall test plan for Orion and SLS, though, as Nasa prepares for the system's first exploration mission.
With the progress made so far, and tests planned at Kennedy in 2017 and 2018 -- when the rocket and ground systems are scheduled to be ready -- NASA is on a path to be ready to launch EM-1 in 2018.