Orion, the spacecraft that will fly a new generation of astronauts into space has passed its parachute test. The capsule was flown on a C-17 military plane to around 10 miles above the Arizona desert before being released in order to check that the chute system was functioning correctly. NASA said it was the closest that Orion has been to a real-life return to Earth. "We've put the parachutes through their paces in ground and airdrop testing in just about every conceivable way," said Mark Geyer, Orion's program manager. "This series of tests has proven the system and will help ensure crew and mission safety for our astronauts in the future."
In order to really test out the system, NASA's engineers put the capsule in freefall for 10 seconds, which increased the speed and aerodynamic pressure on Orion. Once the parachutes were deployed, they pulled the front bay away from the main body of the spacecraft correctly. If this failed, then the rest of the system wouldn't have worked properly.
When it does eventually tumble back down to Earth from space for real, Orion will be reaching speeds of up to 20,000 miles per hour and temperatures of around 4,000 degrees Farenheit. These parachutes — two drogue chutes, plus three main ones which are big enough to cover almost an entire football pitch — will slow the spacecraft down to just 20 miles per hour. More test drops are scheduled for August, to test what-if scenarios (that is to say, how well the system would work should one of the chutes not deploy correctly).
The spacecraft, which was powered up for the first time in October 2013, is NASA's successor to the Space Shuttle, and is expected to fly missions to the Moon, to Mars and to an asteroid. Its first test flight will take place at the end of this year, attached to NASA's Delta IV Heavy Rocket, from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37, says the agency, although future missions will pair it with the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. The first proper flight is scheduled for 2017.
NASA's last manned mission from the Space Shuttle program launched for the last time in August 2011, with anything between three-quarters of a million and a million people turning out to watch Atlantis take off in Florida. Sister ship Discovery is now at the Smithsonian, after a piggy-back ride from NASA's 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.