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Watch: NASA's Orion Spacecraft Completes Fire Propulsion Test

NASA is developing a system to send astronauts to the moon, which includes tests to make sure the Orion spacecraft is ready to safely transport crew members to an alternative mission profile if unexpected problems arise. To simulate this scenario, NASA recently turned on Orion's propulsion system during a short test, and it was an extremely hot process.

On Aug. 5, the test was conducted using a qualifying version of the propulsion system at NASA's White Sands test facility in New Mexico, according to a NASA release. During the test, a continuous 12-minute firing of the Orion propulsion system took place, and although the system did not leave the ground, it repeated one of the most challenging situations that the spacecraft's engines could encounter after launch.

"This was our most demanding test of the pressure system, including our fuel tanks, valves and other components," said Josh Friich, deputy manager, service module for Orion, at NASA's Glen Center of Science. "The combined international team has been working on this test for many months."

The test mimics what scientists call an orbit interruption scenario: If the Temporal Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) was unable to set up the spacecraft on its way to the moon, Orion would deliberately separate early from ICPS and the European Space Agency (ESA) service module engines provided will launch to launch Orion into a secure, temporary orbit. This Plan B strategy will give time to evaluate the crew and spacecraft before deciding to proceed with an alternative mission scenario or return to our planet. If an alternate mission profile is chosen, Orion and its crew will still have a chance to fulfill some of the mission's goals, even if there are changes in trajectory.

The engineers mimicked the orbit interruption scenario, firing the Orion main engine on the service module and all eight of its auxiliary engines simultaneously. Each reaction control thrust was also periodically triggered throughout the test to replicate the position and overall capacity of the propulsion system, according to NASA.

"The White Sands tests are very helpful in better understanding and operating our service module propulsion system," says Jim Withrow, project manager for the test article. "This shooting was one of a series of tests performed so far and in the coming months to simulate emergency modes and other stressful flight conditions."

The service module, which is the strength of the Orion spacecraft, provides space maneuvering and other basic astronaut life support systems such as supplies (water, nitrogen and oxygen). Kennedy Space Center engineers join the completed Artemis 1 crew and service module before sending Orion to NASA's Plum Brook Station for simulated environmental testing this fall. Once this step is completed, Orion will return to the Kennedy Space Center for processing and integration with the Space Launch System (SLS).

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