NASA’s Orion spacecraft has successfully passed a series of tests carried out to verify functioning of its critical safety systems. NASA engineers carried out tests for Orion's launch abort system (LAS) on June 15 at the Promontory, Utah, facility of Orion subcontractor Orbital Atk, and were satisfied with the results. The tests involved firing the 17-foot tall abort motor, fastened to a test stand, for five seconds. The motor generated the desired amount of thrust to help the system qualify for future manned missions.

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Robert Decoursey, manager for Orion’s LAS, describes this system as vital for the safety of crew members during manned space missions. This system will be deployed on the top of Orion crew module.

In case of emergency, such as launch rocket failure, the abort motor will propel the crew module away from the rocket to a safe distance. The abort motor will also orient the module properly and ensure its safe descent into the Atlantic Ocean.

Initial results of the abort motor tests

The initial results of the abort motor tests verified that the motor will start functioning within milliseconds, if required. Moreover, it will work as expected under conditions of high temperatures.

During recent tests, NASA engineers also evaluated the parachute system of Orion to check how this system will work if an abort on the launch pad occurs. The parachute system will also ensure safe descent of crew when Orion returns to Earth from space. The parachute system will deploy 11 parachutes in a specific sequence to slow down the speed of the module.

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Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle

Announced in 2011, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is a spacecraft being developed by NASA with an aim to send astronauts to deep-space destinations such as Mars or asteroids beyond Moon. NASA also wants to use this spacecraft to retrieve astronauts from the International Space Station, if needed. Orion will be launched using the Space Launch System, and will have two main modules: (1) Orion command module and (2) Orion Service Module. Lockheed Martin is currently developing the command module at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The second module is being developed by Airbus Defence and Space.

The first unmanned test flight of Orion was accomplished on December 5, 2015. During this flight, the spacecraft was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. The flight lasted for 4 hours and 24 minutes.

The first manned mission of Orion is not expected to take place until 2023, although NASA has said that its team is working toward an "aggressive” goal of 2021.