The crew-carrying Dragon is a modified, upgraded version of the unmanned capsule that already flies cargo to the space station under a separate $1.6 billion NASA contract. One of the upgrades SpaceX has installed is a launch abort system, which comprises eight SuperDraco engines built into Dragon that can fire up and blast the spacecraft away from danger if need be. These engines roared to life Tuesday (May 5) during a "hold-down firing" test at Cape Canaveral ahead of the pad abort test, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk announced via Twitter.
"This system is designed to quickly get the crew and spacecraft away from the rocket in the event of a potential failure, " SpaceX representatives wrote Monday (May 4) in a description of the pad abort trial. "It is similar to an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is 'ejected' away from the launch vehicle."
During the trial, Dragon will sit atop a truss structure rather than SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, its usual ride. If all goes according to plan, the eight SuperDracos will ignite, together generating 120, 000 pounds of thrust. The engine burn will end after about 5 seconds, when all the fuel is exhausted. Dragon will then coast for about 15 seconds, reaching a maximum altitude of about 4, 900 feet (1, 500 meters).
About 25 seconds after liftoff, small "drogue" parachutes will deploy, followed by the main parachutes 10 seconds later, SpaceX representatives said. Dragon will then splash down in the Atlantic Ocean 7, 200 feet (2, 200 m) or so from the launch pad, just 107 seconds after taking off.
An unnamed dummy will fly aboard SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule during the spacecraft’s pad abort test, which is scheduled for May 6, 2015, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
SpaceX engineers will gather huge amounts of data during the test. Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors, and then there's the dummy (who doesn't have a name at the moment, despite earlier reports that he's going by "Buster").
"The purpose of the dummy is to collect data on the forces (gravitational loads) being experienced inside the spacecraft, " SpaceX representatives wrote. "This, along with data gathered from the vehicle, will help ensure crewmembers can withstand the environments seen during a launch abort."
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