NASA's Orion spacecraft, which will carry the first woman and the next man to the moon in 2024, was successfully tested Tuesday.
Weather conditions at Kennedy Space Center in Florida were perfect for the launch to conduct the flight test, called Ascent Abort-2. The "stack" -- the parts comprising the rocket, abort system and capsule -- that launched is about 93 feet tall.
A test version of the Orion crew capsule launched at the beginning of a four-hour window that opened at 7 a.m. ET Tuesday. No crew was aboard.
"It was a very smooth liftoff," said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager. "By all first accounts, it was magnificent." The abort system performed as expected. The next time the abort system is used, astronauts will be on board.
The test needed to be performed as early as possible for the Orion team to gather data and inform missions going forward.
"This test is extremely important," Kirasich said. "Our Launch Abort System is a key safety feature of the spacecraft — it will protect the crew members who fly onboard Orion during the most challenging part of the mission, which is the ascent phase."
The test is meant to ensure that when the craft carrying humans ascends to space after launch, the abort system can pull the crew module away if there's an emergency. On Tuesday, NASA will test a full abort as well as collect data from 900 sensors on the spacecraft.
The Space Launch System rocket that will carry Orion to space will be the most powerful engine ever used, which means a more powerful launch abort system is required to keep the crew safe in the event of a problem.
To provide an idea of the power involved, here's a snapshot of the test launch on Tuesday: 500,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff that provided the craft with a speed of 800 mph. This allowed the craft to reach 31,000 feet in 55 seconds. Then, the abort was initiated, causing the abort motor and attitude control motor, which provides steering, to ignite. A peak of 45,000 feet was reached.
A little over 20 seconds later, the jettison motor pulled the capsule away from the rocket. The capsule fell into the ocean at 300 mph, likely coming apart because there weren't be any parachutes to slow it down. It's weighted down to sink. When Orion launches in 2024, parachutes will be used to slow descent and keep the capsule intact.
The motors on top of the module pull the capsule away from the rocket, rather than motors positioned at the base to push it away. The abort system is designed to automatically fire within milliseconds if an error rises so the capsule can literally outrun the rocket.
"In an abort scenario, the Launch Abort System and crew module essentially become its own aircraft," said Chuck Dingell, chief engineer for Orion. "Not only do we want to get that craft away from a dangerous scenario quickly, but we also want to control it so that it flies in a direction as far as possible from the rocket. It's also easier to control a vehicle with a forward center of gravity and that is heavier on the front end."
For the final design, the crew will also have an abort button they can use.
Twelve data recorders ejected in pairs and fell into the ocean. While all of the data from the recorders will be downlinked during the flight, the team needs to be able to recover at least one data recorder to provide a full backup if data is lost.
Recorders will likely wash up on the beach because they can float. They're bright orange and are labeled with a phone number and email address in case people find them on the beach. They also feature a beacon and transmitter for recovery.
"We are incredibly excited," said Jenny Devolites, Ascent Abort-2 crew module manager and test conductor. "It's such an honor to be a part of this activity and to have this opportunity."
In 2024, Artemis 2 will carry astronauts to the Gateway, a spaceship that will go into orbit around the moon and be used as a lunar outpost. From there the astronauts can use another vehicle to descend to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.