NASA Testing Orion Engines and Parachutes

By Sean Kane email: , Feb 13, 2013 06:04 PM EST

NASA is testing the Orion spacecraft's rocket engines and parachute systems.

Orion will be the first spacecraft designed to take astronauts beyond Earth orbit since the Apollo program. The spacecraft is being designed to take humans to the moon and maybe even asteroids. Current tests are focusing on the J-2X engines and the parachutes that will slow the capsule's descent back to Earth.

NASA has begun to focus its efforts again on the exploration of space, as commerical companies like SpaceX are begin to shuttle crews and gear to and from the International Space Station.

The new Orion spacecraft should make its first unmanned flight in 2014, when it will travel 3,600 miles from Earth. Humans last ventured that far into space in 1972 during the Apollo program. Manned missions around the moon are planned to take place by 2021.

Engineers at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are testing the engines for Orion, reports Wired. Those engines, the J-2X, are designed by NASA and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Despite the nomenclature, the J-2X is a completely new engine compared to its predecessor, the famous J-2, which powered the Saturn V rockets to the moon during the Apollo era. Differences from the J-2 include a centrifugal turbo pump, replacing the axial pump on the older engine. Turbo pumps on a rocket engine use enormous pressure to pump the rocket fuel and oxidizer into the combustion chamber. Each of the two J-2X engines weighs more than 2.5 tons and will produce more than 290,000 pounds of thrust in a vacuum. These engines will create 25 percent more thrust than its predecessor.

NASA tested the parachutes for the spacecraft on Tuesday. They dropped a 21,000 pound Orion-shaped test capsule from 25,000 feet above the Arizona desert. The engineers purposefully kept one of the capsule's three parachutes from opening, but even with only two parachutes functioning, the capsule landed at a speed safe for astronauts.

Further tests will be done later this year to test the recovery process for the capsule. After splashing down, Orion will be picked up by a Navy landing platform dock ship, unlike former capsules that were recovered by helicopter and delivered to aircraft carriers.

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