NASA and industry engineers successfully completed the first test of the Ares I rocket’s three main parachutes May 20. The parachutes — the largest rocket parachutes ever manufactured — are designed to slow the rapid descent of the rocket’s spent first-stage motor, permitting its recovery for use on future flights.
The Ares I, the first rocket in NASA’s Constellation Program, is designed to launch explorers aboard the Orion crew capsule on journeys to the International Space Station, the Moon, and beyond. The three main parachutes measure 150 feet (46 meters) in diameter and weigh 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) each. They are a primary element of the rocket’s deceleration system, which also includes a pilot parachute and drogue parachute. Deployed in a cluster, the main parachutes open at the same time, providing the drag necessary to slow the descent of the huge solid rocket motor to a soft landing in the ocean.
“The successful main chute cluster test today, May 20, confirms the development and design changes we have implemented for the Ares I first stage recovery system,” said Ron King, Ares I first stage deceleration subsystem manager for the Ares Projects at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Thanks to our great, collaborative team, the test went as anticipated, and all of our design objectives were met.”
Engineers from Marshall managed the team that conducted this first cluster test at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground near Yuma, Arizona. This was the eighth in an ongoing series of flight tests supporting the development of the Ares I recovery system. Researchers dropped the 41,500-pound (18,800-kilogram) load from a U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). The parachutes and all test hardware functioned properly and landed safely.
As the test series progresses, engineers will perform three classifications of testing: development, design load, and overload. Each level of testing is designed to fully test the performance of the new parachute design with different size payloads under varying conditions. The next test in the cycle — scheduled for fall 2009 — will involve the first design limit load test of a single main parachute.
The Ares I recovery system currently under development uses parachutes similar to those used for the four-segment space shuttle boosters, but the parachutes have been redesigned to accommodate the new requirements of the Ares I first stage. The Ares I launch vehicle will have a five-segment solid rocket booster that will fly faster and fall from a higher altitude than the shuttle boosters.