Letting you down gently: load cells and parachute testing
Published On: March 13 2017
If there is one device that really does need testing, it’s the parachute that returns spacecraft back to earth with a gentle bump (or more usually, splash.)
Load cells at NASA
While testing the triple parachute array for the new Orion spacecraft, the NASA Ames Research Center used S-beam load cells to measure the forces exerted on the array under test conditions. The chutes were rigged up in a giant wind tunnel, and inflated to replicate the conditions experienced during descent. The load cells were positioned in the other lines, and relayed real time information via a USB interface.
The new NASA Orion spacecraft
The Orion spacecraft is specifically designed to return crew to Earth after deep-space missions. After testing in the wind tunnel, the parachutes were then tested in the skies above the Arizona desert. An aerodynamic dart-shaped test object was dropped from a C-17 aircraft over 6.5 miles, or 35,000 feet above the ground. This is actually higher than required during re-entry, as the parachute sequence normally deploys at 24,000 feet, with the main chutes opening at 4,000 feet.
The team then went on to successfully test the parachutes with a capsule-shaped object on March 8th 2017, the second of eight tests before the chutes are fully cleared for use with human space flight.
To the moon and beyond
Orion will first be used for an unmanned mission in 2018, which will see the craft travel 40,000 miles beyond the moon. After hurtling through the atmosphere at speeds up to 25,000 miles an hour, the capsule will be slowed down to an impressive 17mph when it gently splashes down into the Pacific Ocean.
Watch a parachute unfurl
The Schiaparelli spacecraft touched down on Mars last year, using a ‘disc-gap-band’ parachute. NASA had filmed the testing of just such a parachute in a wind tunnel, and it’s amazing to watch this sliver of fabric unfurl into the final open canopy.
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