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/

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

Faster Supercomputer! NASA Announces the High Performance Fast Computing Challenge

For decades, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) has been responsible for developing the technologies that put satellites into orbit, astronauts on the Moon, and sent robotic missions to other planets. Unfortunately, after many years of supporting NASA missions, some of their machinery is getting on in years and is in need of an upgrade.

Consider the Pleiades supercomputer, the distributed-memory machine that is responsible for conducting modeling and simulations for NASA missions. Despite being one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, Pleiades will need to be upgraded in order to stay up to task in the years ahead. Hence why NASA has come together with TopCoder (and with the support of HeroX) to launch the High Performance Fast Computing Challenge (HPFCC).

With a prize purse of $55,000, NASA and TopCoder are seeking programmers and computer specialists to help them upgrade Pleiades so it can perform computations faster. Specifically, they want to improve its FUN3D software so that flow analysis which previously took months can now be done in days or hours. In short, they want to speed up their supercomputers by a factor of 10 to 1000 while relying on its existing hardware, and without any decreases in accuracy.

The addition of Haswell processors in 2015 increased the theoretical peak processing capability of Pleiades from 4.5 petaflops to 5.3 petaflops. Credit: NASA

Those hoping to enter need to be familiar with FUN3D software, which is used to calculate the nonlinear partial differential equations (aka. Navier-Stokes equations) that are used for steady and unsteady flow computations. These include large eddy simulations in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which are of particular importance when it comes to supersonic aircraft, space flight, and the development launch vehicles and planetary reentry systems.

NASA has partnered to launch this challenge with TopCoder, the world’s largest online community of designers, developers and data scientists. Since it was founded in 2001, this company has hosted countless online competitions (known as “single round matches”, or SRMs) designed to foster better programming. They also host weekly competitions to stimulate developments in graphic design.

Overall, the HPFSCC will consist of two challenges – the Ideation Challenge and the Architecture Challenge. For the Ideation Challenge (hosted by NASA), competitors must propose ideas that can help optimize the Pleiades source code. As they state, may include (but is not limited to) “exploiting algorithmic developments in such areas as grid adaptation, higher-order methods and efficient solution techniques for high performance computing hardware.”

The computation of fluid dynamics is of particular importance when plotting space launches and reentry. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Architecture Challenge (hosted by TopCoder), is focused less on strategy and more on measurable improvements. As such, participants will be tasked with showing how to optimize processing in order to reduce the overall time and increase the efficiency of computing models. Ideally, says TopCoder, this would include “algorithm optimization of the existing code base, inter-node dispatch optimization, or a combination of the two.”

NASA is providing $20,000 in prizes for the Ideation challenge, with $10,000 awarded for first place, and two runner-up awards of $5000 each. TopCoder, meanwhile, is offering $35,000 for the Architecture challenge – a top prize of $15,000 for first place, $10,000 for second place, with $10,000 set aside for the Qualified Improvement Candidate Prize Pool.

The competition will remain open to submissions until June 29th, 2017, at which point, the judging will commence. This will wrap up on August 7th, and the winners of both competitions will be announced on August 9th. So if you are a coder, computer engineer, or someone familiar with FUN3D software, be sure to head on over to HeroX and accept the challenge!

Human space exploration continues to advance, with missions planned for the Moon, Mars, and beyond. With an ever-expanding presence in space and new challenges awaiting us, it is necessary that we have the right tools to make it all happen. By leveraging improvements in computer programming, we can ensure that one of the most important aspects of mission planning remains up to task!

Further Reading: HeroX, TopCoder