SpaceX Successfully Tests Crewed Dragon Launch Abort Engines


SpaceX has cleared a major hurdle on the way to launching manned missions with its Dragon spacecraft. The company had to push back its launch plans after the stunning explosion of a Crew Dragon capsule during testing earlier this year. Now, SpaceX has successfully tested the engines without incident, paving the way for a test flight next year. 

The SpaceX Dragon is one of two commercial spacecraft NASA hopes to use to launch manned missions to the International Space Station, the other being Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. SpaceX was on track to beat Boeing to launch before its April testing failure, but picking through the pieces of the demolished capsule pushed back the timetable. 

After an investigation, SpaceX confirmed the craft’s SuperDraco engines themselves were not at fault. These innovative launch abort engines use hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants, which mix together and ignite, but most launch abort systems use solid propellants. SpaceX went this way because it intends to do propulsive landings with the Dragon in the future, but NASA hasn’t authorized that for crewed flights. Unfortunately, a leaky fuel valve in the abort propulsion system allowed nitrogen tetroxide to leak into the helium pressurization system. It was then driven back into the titanium check valve, which caused the explosion. 

The new and improved Dragon has a burst disk in the fuel lines that keeps propellant from leaking into the high-pressure lines before ignition. This week’s test-firing demonstrates that the new system functions as intended, and SpaceX says it can now move forward with launch plans. 

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The next step is to test the SuperDraco engines in-flight late this year. A Falcon 9 will launch the capsule upward for 88 seconds. At that point, the computer aboard the rocket will cut the engines, simulating an emergency loss of thrust. The SuperDraco engines will wrench the Dragon from its mounting and push it clear of the launch vehicle. It will parachute into the Atlantic where SpaceX will recover it for study. 

Once SpaceX has proven that its spacecraft can handle an in-flight abort, it’ll prepare for the first crewed flight in early 2020. The dragon will send astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS, remaining there for two weeks before returning to Earth. Boeing is targeting the same timeframe for its first crewed flight.

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