VIDEO: NASA launches, tests Orion's abort system

Test held in Cape Canaveral

Teams tested the launch abort system for the Orion spacecraft, the capsule designed to carry astronauts to lunar orbit.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Early Tuesday morning, spectators along the Space Coast got the chance to witness a historic moment as NASA got one step closer to returning American astronauts to the moon, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

At the opening of a four-hour window beginning at 7 a.m. Tuesday, teams tested the launch abort system for the Orion spacecraft, the capsule designed to carry astronauts to lunar orbit. 

The demo version of the capsule was launched atop a test booster, Minotaur IV, provided by Northrop Grumman at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 46. 

This brief, uncrewed flight test was unlike other launches that have occurred this year: instead of regular launches that send spacecraft to orbit, Tuesday's launch did not exit Earth's atmosphere.

Instead, during the three-minute test, the spacecraft blasted off to an altitude of about 6 miles while traveling at a speed of over 1,000 mph. From there, the system's abort motor fired and pulled the spacecraft away from the booster within milliseconds, as it would in an emergency situation during a regular crewed flight.

Here's a breakdown of the test launch:

  • A test version of the crew module will launch atop the Minotaur IV rocket from Launch Complex 46.
  • Fifty-five seconds after launch, the abort sequence will initiate at an altitude of 31,000 feet.
  • At this point, the abort motor will fire with 400,000 pounds of thrust, pulling the crew module away from the booster. 
  • From there, the altitude control motor will reorient the launch abort system to be able to safely separate from the crew module. 
  • Once the jettison motor fires, the system will separate from the crew module.
  • Lastly, the onboard data recorders for the launch will separate from the capsule, ending the test. 
  • The crew module will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. 

"Timing is crucial as the abort events must match the abort timing requirements of the Orion spacecraft to the millisecond in order for the flight test data to be valid," according to NASA. 

NASA is scheduled to test its Orion spacecraft on Tuesday.

"The primary concern will be nearshore cloud coverage, which may hamper the view of the optical trackers," according to the 45th Weather Squadron.

Tuesday's launch marked a critical milestone for NASA as the agency prepares to send humans back to the moon within the next five years.

The 22,000-pound test version of Orion must demonstrate the capsule's capability of activating its abort system, steering the spacecraft and being able to carry the astronauts to a safe distance in the event of an emergency during liftoff. 

The data retrieved from this test will help teams improve computer models for the spacecraft launch abort system's performance and functions, an important feature necessary in ensuring the astronauts' safety.

"The test paves the way for Artemis 2, the first flight of astronauts aboard Orion and the powerful new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on a mission to carry humans around the moon for the first time in half a century," according to NASA.

NASA is planning on sending American men and women to the south pole of the moon by 2024 under the program name Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and twin sister of Apollo. 

The agency plans to use the Orion capsule, designed by Lockheed Martin, which is also intended to carry astronauts to Mars and other deep-space missions, as well as the Boeing-made Space Launch System, or SLS rocket currently under development for lunar missions.

NASA hopes to have an initial uncrewed flight test, known as Artemis 1, around the moon by next year, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that date could slip into the following year.

The first crewed flight test, or Artemis 2, would follow in 2022 and would be a lunar flyby mission. If schedules hold, by 2024 Artemis 3 would once again have American astronauts on the lunar surface. 

Tuesday's launch will not be Orion's first test mission, however. The capsule previously launched to space atop United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket in December 2014 for Exploration Flight Test-1. The uncrewed flight tested the capsule's heat shield to determine the conditions the spacecraft would face when returning from deep-space missions.

Also in 2010, an earlier version of Orion's launch abort system was successfully tested to evaluate the performance of the system from the launch pad during the Pad Abort Test-1 mission at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. 

"AA-2 provides the only opportunity to test a fully active launch abort system during ascent before flying crew, so verifying that it works as predicted in the event of an emergency is a critical step for deep space exploration," NASA said. 

Launch Tuesday

Rocket: Northrop Grumman Minotaur IV

Mission: Orion Ascent Abort-2 test

Launch Time: 7 a.m. ET

Launch Window: To 11 a.m. ET

Launch Pad: 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

Weather: 70% "go"