Boeing is currently in the midst of parachute drop tests of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which are being carried out to ensure future astronauts a safe return from space. The latest test, conducted on Feb. 22 at Spaceport America, New Mexico, provided a real wealth of data essential for the safety of crews during re-entry into the atmosphere.
During the test, a giant helium-filled balloon lifted off from Spaceport America, carrying a flight-sized boilerplate Starliner spacecraft up to about 40,000 feet (12,200 meters) and was then released over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Afterward, it floated across the San Andres Mountains for a parachute landing on the other side.
“What the balloon launch and release enabled us to do is to test the highest-fidelity Starliner capsule possible in terms of size, shape and weight. And performing this in New Mexico enabled us to take the vehicle up to about 40,000 feet before releasing it,” Rebecca Regan of Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security (BDS) division told SpaceFlight Insider.
The spacecraft reached the same velocity it would experience during a return from a the International Space Station (ISS). After the capsule was released from the balloon, it deployed two drogue parachutes designed to stabilize the spacecraft at 28,000 feet (8,530 meters). Next, at approximately 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) above the surface, Starliner opened its pilot parachutes, while its main parachutes were deployed at 8,000 feet (2,440 meters) - before the spacecraft’s base heat shield was jettisoned.
“We placed sensors on board the boilerplate spacecraft that collected data real-time, and we're able to provide that to NASA as insight into how we'll be giving astronauts a safe return from space,” Regan said.
The engineers will use the data collected during the test to verify the parachute inflation characteristics and landing system performance, as well as the altitude and descent rate of the Starliner spacecraft at touchdown. Analyses of these data will tell if the parachute system can stabilize and decelerate the capsule to a nominal terminal descent velocity, what is necessary in order to achieve a safe landing.
The parachute drop tests campaign is part of the final development and certification effort under way for the CST-100 Starliner in collaboration with NASA's Commercial Crew Program.
“These qualification tests are more comprehensive than our initial drop tests, which were meant prove out concepts, capture data and influence the final design. We're now testing all of the subsystems and systems together and replicating the environment the spacecraft would encounter on an entry from orbit, including the parachutes, the avionics systems, the pyros and the deployment sequence,” Regan noted.
While the test conducted in late February simulated a nominal return from space, Boeing now plans to introduce anomalies to future tests see how the vehicle recovers from something like a drogue failure or a main parachute failure.
Starliner’s next parachute drop tests in the New Mexico area are planned to be carried out over the next few months.
Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation CST-100 Starliner spacecraft was designed to accommodate seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO). For NASA service missions to ISS, it will carry up to four NASA-sponsored crew members and time-critical scientific research.
Regan confirmed that Starliner is on track for an uncrewed orbital flight test in June 2018 and a crewed flight test to ISS with one NASA and one Boeing astronaut onboard in August 2018.