Parachutes for NASA's Next Crewed Spaceship Pass Key Test (Photo)

Orion capsule parachute
The parachutes for NASA's next crew vehicle, the Orion capsule, passed a drop test over the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona, on July 12, 2018. (Image credit: NASA)

The parachutes that will slow NASA's Orion crew capsule during its descent back to Earth aced an important test last week.

Orion's parachute system "deployed as planned after being dropped from an altitude of 6.6 miles [10.6 kilometers) on July 12, at the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona," NASA officials wrote in a statement Wednesday (July 18). "Data from the successful seventh drop in a series of eight qualification tests will help NASA engineers certify Orion's parachutes for missions with astronauts." 

The last of those eight tests is planned for September, when the chutes will fly with a capsule that looks a lot like Orion, the officials added. (Last week's trial used a dart-shaped "test article.") [The Orion Space Capsule: NASA's Next Spaceship (Photos)]

NASA is developing Orion to help get astronauts to distant destinations such as the moon and Mars. The capsule has flown to space once: In December 2014, it launched on an uncrewed mission to Earth orbit called Exploration Flight Test-1. That mission ended, after 4 hours and two laps around Earth, with a successful, parachute-aided splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the Southern California coast.

Orion's next spaceflight is another uncrewed test, called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will send the craft on a three-week trip around the moon. NASA plans to launch EM-1 — which will also be the maiden flight of NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket — by June 2020, and perhaps as early as December 2019.

After that will come Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), the first crewed flight of the Orion-SLS system. EM-2, which is scheduled to lift off in 2023, will launch four astronauts on a lunar flyby mission.

Orion's parachute system consists of 11 individual chutes — "three forward-bay cover parachutes, two drogue parachutes, three pilot parachutes and three main parachutes that will reduce the capsule's speed after re-entry in support of a safe landing in the ocean," NASA officials wrote in the same statement.

Each main parachute expands to a diameter of 116 feet (35 meters) when deployed in Earth's atmosphere, they added. But all this material is packed into a container the size of a large suitcase for loading aboard Orion. In its compressed configuration (which is achieved with the aid of hydraulic presses, baking and vacuum sealing), each main chute has a density of about 40 lbs. per cubic foot (640 kilograms per cubic m) — about the same as a chunk of wood from an oak tree, NASA officials said. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.