Boeing will test a critical launch escape system for its new Starliner capsule for astronauts today (Nov. 4) and you can watch it live online.
The test, scheduled for 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT), will launch Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule from a stand at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to demonstrate the spacecraft's launch abort engines, which are designed to rip the crew capsule from its Atlas V rocket during an emergency.
You can watch Boeing's Starliner abort test here (opens in new tab) and on Space.com's homepage starting at 8:50 a.m. EST (1350 GMT), courtesy of NASA TV. Boeing has a three-hour window in which to launch the test from Launch Complex 32 of the missile range.
"This will be Boeing's first flight test as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program and will help evaluate the performance of the abort system prior to missions to the International Space Station with a crew onboard," NASA officials said in a statement (opens in new tab).
Boeing is one of two commercial companies with NASA contracts to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The other company is SpaceX, which launched an uncrewed orbital test flight earlier this year and is expected to test the abort engines of its Crew Dragon capsule later this week.
But before Boeing and SpaceX can launch astronauts into orbit, the companies have to prove their vehicles can keep astronauts safe during a launch emergency. In October 2018, a Russian Soyuz rocket failed just after liftoff, triggering its launch abort system to pull its Soyuz crew capsule free and safely returning NASA astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin back to Earth.
Unlike the Soyuz, which used a launch abort system on a tower (opens in new tab) atop the capsule, Boeing and SpaceX use pusher systems with thrusters attached to their capsules. Boeing's Starliner uses four launch abort engines designed to push the capsule free from it Atlas V booster with a combined 160,000 lbs. of thrust, according to a NASA description.
For today's test, Boeing will perform what NASA calls a "zero-zero" test, in which an abort occurs on while a rocket is on the launchpad. Shortly after ignition, Starliner's orbital maneuvering thrusters also fire to make sure the capsule maintains the proper orientation to deploy its parachutes for the descent back to Earth.
"The vehicle is expected to reach an altitude of about 4,500 feet above the ground, and push about 7,000 feet (about 1 mile) north of the test stand," NASA officials said.
About 19 seconds into the flight, Starliner should eject the protective cover and heat shield over its parachutes, then deploy a drogue chute before releasing its main parachute system.
Once those main chutes deploy, Starliner's service module should separate along with the base of the spacecraft's heat shield. (The service module will crash back to Earth and won't survive the test, but it's not expected to.) The crew capsule's airbags, designed to cushion Starliner's final landing on the ground, should then inflate.
If all goes well, Boeing's Starliner launch abort test should last just 1.5 minutes.
"The zero-zero abort scenario is especially challenging because the spacecraft abort system must quickly get away from a potentially dangerous rocket, but also must gain enough altitude and distance for the parachutes to open and landing systems to be activated," NASA officials said in a statement. "The abort test will provide Boeing and NASA with reams of data to help evaluate and verify the performance of the vehicle’s abort systems – a critical capability for NASA's certification of Starliner to fly astronauts to station."
Boeing's abort test comes just over a month ahead of the company's first orbital launch of a Starliner spacecraft. That mission, the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test, is scheduled to launch Dec. 17. The first crewed Starliner mission, called the Crew Flight Test, is expected to launch in early 2020 with Boeing astronauts Chris Ferguson (a former NASA shuttle commander) and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Aunapu Mann.