NASA’s next spaceship, the Orion – otherwise known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) – is starting to resemble what it’ll look like ahead of launch, as Lockheed Martin engineers at their Denver facility work through a number of key development tasks. In a milestone for the vehicle, an Orion Ground Test Article (GTA) was mated with its Launch Abort System (LAS) for vibration testing.
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Following an uncertain period in its early life, Orion has been refocused towards a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration role, refined from its previous dual role in Low Earth Orbit and beyond, as previous prescribed by the now defunct Constellation Program (CxP).
An array of commercial vehicles are currently competing for NASA’s long-term affections via the CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) contracts, as they prepare to take over the crew transportation needs in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This still leaves Orion with a distinct lack of defined missions, with only pre-planned – as opposed to confirmed mission outlines – to Near Earth Objects (NEO), ahead of an eventual role in the first human mission to Mars.
Most of the problems with the long term manifest relate to the ongoing “political” delays in pushing forward with the Space Launch System (SLS), which is supposed to be the launch vehicle of choice for Orion’s BEO missions.
The only preliminary SLS manifest in recent months shows Orion will opening two BEO missions, starting with an unmanned trip around the Moon in 2017, prior to a four year gap to SLS-2, which would be an identical mission, only this time the 2021 lunar flight would be crewed.
Sources claim it is likely – as much as no hard evidence has yet been produced – that this timeline will move significantly to the left, especially in light of the “threat” a commercial carrier would likely propose being such missions far cheaper and sooner.
Should NASA eventually announce SLS, in line with the aforementioned preliminary schedule, it is highly questionable the vehicle would survive the resulting political fallout.
As it stands, the first real BEO mission of substance for Orion involves a long duration flight to a NEO in around 2025.
Ironically, it will be a commercial launch vehicle which will provide Orion with its first trip into space, via the Orion Flight Test (OFT-1) in 2013, when a Delta IV will send an unmanned MPCV on a short orbital test flight from Cape Canaveral.
With Orion work now picking up a good pace in its development stage, several milestones are being reached in Denver, with the black GTA Crew Module – which was constructed at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans – mated with the LAS for the first time at the Lockheed Martin Reverberant Acoustics Lab (RAL) in Denver during the week of August 8-12.
“The completed Launch Abort Vehicle (LAV) assembly has been translated into the acoustic test cell for the start of the integrated acoustic testing,” noted Orion processing notes (L2).
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“All of the handling Mechanical Ground Support Equipment (MGSE) and procedures performed as anticipated and no significant issues were noted during the mate operation.”
This testing – also known as the “shake and bake” test – took place at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton facility in Denver, as the Orion stack was exposed to a series of tests which simulate the sound pressure levels that the vehicle will encounter during launch, which can exceed 160 decibels.
“Acoustic Testing Conducted on Integrated Ground Test Article: Acoustic testing was conducted on the Ground Test Article (GTA) Launch Abort Vehicle (Comprised of the launch abort system and the crew module). Preliminary data from the test looks positive,” added the processing notes.
“Next, the team will remove the launch abort system from the crew module and outfit the launch abort system with the fillet and ogive panels for the next test configuration. The next round of acoustic testing will occur in mid-September.”
In other testing, Orion’s Closed Loop Entry Test of flight software on flight computer was deemed a success, following work at Lockheed Martin’s Integrated Test Lab.
“The Orion MPCV Program recently executed a set of tests on the initial configuration. The tests demonstrated the successful integration of avionics hardware, flight software, simulation, ground support equipment and lab infrastructure,” noted notes continued.
“These tests are part of a series of Integrated Sync Points (ISP) that demonstrate integrated avionics and software vehicle functionality. The three ISPs are significant milestones in the development of the Orion Avionics and Software system, demonstrating the Entry Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GN&C) system running closed loop on the Orion flight computers with an integrated simulation.
“It brings together five major threads of the onboard and ground systems: Onboard Avionics, Onboard Flight Software, Electrical Ground Support Equipment, Data and Simulation systems.”
Orion testing is also taking place outside of Denver, with high level Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) modeling of re-entry heating environments now completed at the CUBRC test facility in Buffalo, New York.
“This test measured the impact of shock layer gas chemistry on heating to the Crew Module aft bay heatshield, and provided validation data for high fidelity CFD modeling of re-entry heating environments.
“This data, along with data from the planned follow-on 113-CH test, will provide improved accuracy nominal environments, lower heating rate uncertainties, and critical physics data to improve coupling aerothermal surface environments to the in-depth Thermal Protection System (TPS) thermal response modeling.”
Orion’s on orbit steering hardware – otherwise known as its Reaction Control System (RCS) – has also been put through a series of aeroheating tests at NASA’s Langley Research Facility (LaRC), which is also the center that has carried out the recent water impact drop tests.
“The aerothermodynamics team concluded the 95-CH crew module RCS aeroheating test at the NASA LaRC’s Mach 10 Facility. The primary focus of the test was to use Temperature Sensitive Paint (TSP) to show backshell regions of augmented heat flux due to RCS firings.
“Unlike discrete thermocouple temperature measurements, TSP provides a global heating map which identifies the maximum heating locations and the complete spatial distribution of augmented heating due to RCS jet interactions. The data will be used to verify and validate RCS heating models from previous CAP testing with discrete gauges.
“This test was the first CAP aerothermodynamics test to include the current launch abort system well design and the updated backshell angle.”
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