NASA Simulates Their Orion Abort System. Now That Would be a Crazy Ride

When it comes time for NASA to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, a number of new spacecraft systems will come into play. These include the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) – a next-generation spacecraft that will carry crews beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Naturally, before either of these systems can conduct missions, extensive testing needs to be conducted to ensure they are safe and will perform well. In this spirit, NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) research scientists are currently conducting highly-detailed simulations and visualizations to ensure that the Orion spacecraft’s Launch Abort Vehicle (LAV) will keep crews safe, should an emergency occur during takeoff.

Basically, the LAV is the combined configuration of the Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) and crew module, and is designed to get the crew to safety if an emergency occurs on the launch pad or during the first two minutes of flight. These simulation and visualization techniques, which were conducted with the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center, predict how vibrations will affect the Orion spacecraft’s launch abort vehicle during takeoff.

Artist’s concept of the Orion Launch Abort Vehicle’s attitude control motor in operation during an abort. Credits: NASA

Not only are these tests assisting with the design efforts of the Orion LAV motor (a collaborative effort between NASA and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin), they are also rather unprecedented as far as spacecraft development goes. As Francois Cadieux, a research scientist in the NAS Computational Aerosciences Branch, explained:

“This is one of the first times where large eddy simulation (LES) techniques have been used in full-scale spacecraft analysis and design at NASA. I’m excited to play a part in the agency’s next big human space exploration project—this work brings LES to a point where it can provide accurate predictions within a short enough turnaround time to guide Orion’s design.”

Previously, the use of such high-fidelity tools has been largely restricted to academic research, and not something private industry contractors could take advantage of. Together with Michael Barad – an aerospace engineer at the  Ames Research Center – Cadieux produced a variety of turbulence-resolving computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations using the NAS-developed Launch Ascent and Vehicle Aerodynamics (LAVA) software.

They were assisted by NAS visualization experts, who helped the researchers identify different types of vortices that can caused noise and vibrations. Using this simulation data, the visualization experts created a series of high-quality images and movies that illustrated what kind of flow dynamics the Orion LAS would experience during a launch abort. As Cadieux explained:

“From these visualizations, we were able to identify areas of high vibrational loads on the vehicle, and their sources. What we learned is that noise coming from the turbulence of the plume is substantially higher than any noise generated from its interaction with attached shockwaves.”

Launch Abort System (LAS) for Orion EFT-1 on view horizontally inside the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, prior to installation atop the crew module. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The video below shows the simulation of an ascent abort scenario, where the LAS has detached from the SLS and is traveling at close to the speed of sound. The abort process initiates with the ignition of the LAS motor and then slows down as the pressure and airflow conditions become particularly harsh.

The colored plumes indicate high pressure (red) and low pressure (blue), with pixels changing from blue to red (and vice versa) in relation to pressure waves that cause vibrations on the vehicle (white). The regions where the color changes abruptly, but remains generally blue or red over time, indicates the presence of shock waves. In the end, these simulations are directly impacting the spacecraft’s design and will help ensure astronaut safety and spacecraft performance.

“We’re still asking lots of questions,” said Cadieux. “Like, how do the loads on the LAV surface change at higher angles of attack? How do we best use data from wind tunnel tests to predict loads for actual flight conditions where the vehicle is accelerating?”

The answers to these questions will will be used to design the next series of ground tests, crew mockup tests, and critical flight tests, which will will prepare the Orion spacecraft for its first crewed mission – Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2). This mission, which is scheduled for launch by 2023, will consist of four crew members conducting a lunar flyby and delivering the first components for the Deep Space Gateway.

Be sure to check out the simulation video as well, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center:

Further Reading: NASA, NASA ASD

Buster the Dummy Strapped in for Mile High SpaceX Dragon Flight Test

SpaceX and NASA are just days away from a crucial test of a crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a launch failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

Buster the Dummy is already strapped into his seat aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon test vehicle for what is called the Pad Abort Test, that is currently slated for Wednesday, May 6.

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Boeing was also selected by NASA to build the CST-100 spaceship to provide a second, independent crew space taxi capability to the ISS during 2017.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in May 2015. Credit: SpaceX.

The SpaceX Dragon and trunk together stand about 20 feet tall and are positioned atop the launch mount at SLC-40 for what is clearly labeled as a development test to learn how the Dragon, engines and abort system perform.

Buster will soar along inside the Dragon that will be rapidly propelled to nearly a mile high height solely under the power of eight SpaceX SuperDraco engines.

The trunk will then separate, parachutes will be deployed and the capsule will splashdown about a mile offshore from Florida in the Atlantic Ocean, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during a May 1, 2015 press briefing on the pad abort test at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The entire test will take about a minute and a half and recovery teams will retrieve Dragon from the ocean and bring it back on shore for detailed analysis.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV. The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT. The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

The test is designed to simulate an emergency escape abort scenario from the test stand at the launch pad in the unlikely case of booster failing at liftoff or other scenario that would threaten astronauts inside the spacecraft.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety, according to Koenigsmann.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

SpaceX and NASA hope to refurbish and reuse the same Dragon capsule for another abort test at high altitude later this year. The timing of the in flight abort test hinges on the outcome of the pad abort test.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Beside Buster the dummy, who is human-sized, the Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

“There’s a lot of instrumentation on this flight – a lot,” Koenigsmann said. “Temperature sensors on the outside, acoustic sensors, microphones. This is basically a flying instrumentation deck. At the end of the day, that’s the point of tests, to get lots of data.”

Buster will be accelerated to a force of about 4 to 4½ times the force of Earth’s gravity, noted Koenigsmann.

The pad abort test is being done under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

“The point is to gather data – you don’t have to have a flawless test to be successful,” Cowart said.

The second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives.

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

“Whatever happens to Falcon 9, you will be able to pull out the astronauts and land them safely on this crew Dragon,” said Koenigsmann. “In my opinion, this will make it the safest vehicle that you can possibly fly.”

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), as the worlds privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014 news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Launch Abort System Installed on NASA’s Pathfinding Orion capsule for First Flight in 2 Months

The emergency launch abort system (LAS) has been installed on NASA’s pathfinding Orion crew capsule to prepare for its first launch – now just under two months away.

Technicians and engineers working inside the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida joined the LAS to the top of the Orion EFT-1 crew module on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014.

Attaching the LAS is one of the final component assembly steps leading up to the inaugural uncrewed liftoff of the state-of-the-art Orion EFT-1 spacecraft in December.

The maiden blastoff of Orion on the EFT-1 mission is slated for December 4, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop the triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy booster.

The launch abort system is lowered by crane for installation on the Orion spacecraft for Exploration Flight Test-1 inside the Launch Abort System Facility, or LASF, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston
The launch abort system is lowered by crane for installation on the Orion spacecraft for Exploration Flight Test-1 inside the Launch Abort System Facility, or LASF, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

Indeed last week and this past month has been an extremely busy time for Orion’s launch preparations. And I’ve been present at KSC reporting first hand on many Orion processing events over the past few years.

Assembly of the Orion EFT-1 capsule and stacking atop the service module was completed at KSC in September. I witnessed the rollout of the Orion crew module/service module (CM/SM) stack on Sept. 11, 2014 on a 36 wheeled transporter from its high bay assembly facility in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building and transport to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) for fueling. Read my Orion move story – here.

Running in parallel to processing of the Orion spacecraft is the processing of the triple barreled United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy. The Delta rocket assembly was completed by late September and detailed from my visit to the ULA Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF)- here.

The Delta rocket was moved to its Cape Canaveral launch pad overnight Sept 30 and hoisted at the pad on Oct. 1. Read my story – here.

“We’ve been working toward this launch for months, and we’re in the final stretch,” says former shuttle commander and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Service module at bottom.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Service module at bottom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LAS stands at the very top of the Orion launch stack, bolted above the crew module, and it plays a critically important role to ensure crew safety.

In case of an emergency situation, the LAS is designed to ignite within milliseconds to rapidly propel the astronauts inside the crew module away from the rocket and save the astronauts lives. The quartet of LAS abort motors would generate some 500,000 pounds of thrust to pull the capsule away from the rocket.

For the EFT-1 mission, the LAS will be mostly inactive since no crew is aboard.

Thus the abort motors are inert and not filled with solid fuel propellant. However the jettison motors will be active in order to pull the LAS and Orion’s nose fairing away from the spacecraft just before Orion goes into orbit.

Launch Abort System (LAS) for  Orion EFT-1  on view horizontally inside the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, prior to installation atop the crew module. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch Abort System (LAS) for Orion EFT-1 on view horizontally inside the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, prior to installation atop the crew module. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LAS is one of the five primary components of the flight test vehicle for the EFT-1 mission and will be active on future Orion flights.

The Orion stack is scheduled to remain inside the LASF until mid-November. At that time when the Delta IV Heavy rocket is ready for integration with the spacecraft, Orion will be transported to pad 37 and hoisted atop the rocket.

The Delta IV Heavy became the world’s most powerful rocket upon the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program and is the only rocket sufficiently powerful to launch the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft.

The first stage generates some 2 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

“This mission is a stepping stone on NASA’s journey to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot during the boosters unveiling earlier this year at the Cape. “The EFT-1 mission is so important to NASA. We will test the capsule with a reentry velocity of about 85% of what’s expected by [astronauts] returning from Mars.”

“We will test the heat shield, the separation of the fairing and exercise over 50% of the eventual software and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft. We will also test the recovery systems coming back into the Pacific Ocean.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, SLS, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module enters the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module enters the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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Learn more about Orion, Space Taxis and NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 14: “What’s the Future of America’s Human Spaceflight Program with Orion and Commercial Astronaut Taxis” & “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 7:30 PM

Oct 23/24: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA