Put to the Test

In just a few years, NASA's Orion spacecraft will travel further into space than anyone has ever been.

This spacecraft will carry up to four astronauts deep into space, where they'll have the opportunity to visit near-earth asteroids, the moon, the moons of Mars and eventually Mars itself. Orion's development, which benefits from more than 50 years of spaceflight research, marks a new era of space exploration, with an aircraft that, according to NASA, “will be the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built.” Orion is scheduled to take its first manned flight into deep space in 2021.

But before that can happen, researchers and engineers must complete multiple tests to verify the spacecraft is ready for deep space exploration, from making sure it can withstand the harsh environment created during launch to ensuring it can safely re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land in the Pacific Ocean once a mission is complete.

Orion's Landing and Recovery System is among those systems that must be verified to ensure the spacecraft is ready to take astronauts into space and bring them home safely. The NASA Capsule Parachute Assembly System, or CPAS, is its subsystem. Through CPAS, NASA has put Orion's parachutes to the test for the last five years. The most recent tests, Nos. 12, 13 and 14 were completed earlier this year.

“Our objective is to provide a parachute system that is going to decelerate the Orion capsule to a safe velocity for touchdown in the ocean,” says Charles Williamson, NASA avionics test lead. “We have a whole litany of requirements that we have to meet from the Orion program, and a lot of those requirements were also imposed on the Apollo program. We have some members of the Apollo program on our team so they can pass down their knowledge. One of the biggest requirements is a descent rate that is less than 33 feet per second to ensure crew members are not harmed when they hit the water.”

To determine how fast the test vehicle is falling, the team uses NovAtel's SPAN-SE™ receiver combined with an inertial measurement unit, or IMU. During these drop tests, researchers need to capture vertical velocity data to ensure the test vehicle's descent rate doesn't exceed the 33 feet per second requirement. The SPAN-SE provides the user interface to NovAtel's SPAN technology, and outputs raw measurement data or solution data over several communication protocols or a removable SD card. Combining the SPAN-SE with a SPAN-supported IMU creates a complete INS system.