Launches and the conditions in space put incredible stresses on spacecraft components. Before a spacecraft takes flight, it must go through an exhaustive series of testing procedures. Many of those tests are done at Ohio's NASA Glenn Research Center - Plum Brook Station; stresses akin to those experienced by spacecraft are simulated at this facility. I was fortunate enough to be "media guest" at the Nov. 30th ESA Service Module event - which was broadcast on NASA TV.
Below is a NASA press release on the testing that will be done on the ESA European Service Module. After, I'll share photos of the facility, and comments on discussions I had with NASA officials.
NASA is about to begin testing the heart of Orion’s power systems at the world’s largest, most powerful space environment simulation facility early next year. Test engineers at NASA Glenn Research Center’s Space Power Facility (SPF) in Sandusky, Ohio, are preparing to put a full-size test version of the European Service Module (ESM) for the spacecraft through a series of crucial tests to verify the structural integrity of the hardware to withstand the dynamic environment of launch into space atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Engineers will begin to evaluate the integrated stack hardware provided by ESA (European Space Agency) and its partners in February 2016. The hardware brings together new technology and lightweight materials while also taking advantage of spaceflight-proven elements.
“We added new facility capabilities for environmental testing over the last several years to meet the demands of validating the systems on the Orion ESM,” says Jerry Carek, SPF facility manager.
The first test will focus on the deployable solar array wing. Built by ESA partner Airbus DS, the solar arrays span 62 feet and engineers want to ensure the wing fully extends and retracts on command in the proper configuration.
During March and April, the test article will move into the world’s most powerful spacecraft acoustic test chamber to be pummeled with noise equivalent to 20 jet engines at full thrust. Each element of the ESM, at times separately and then fully assembled, will be blasted with at least 152 decibels and 20-10,000 hertz of sound pressure and vibration.
Moving into the Mechanical Vibration Facility, from May through July, the test article will be placed on a vibration table that simulates the shaking the spacecraft will expect when launching on top of its rocket. The table is attached to a 4.5 million pound concrete seismic mass anchored 50 feet into bedrock using 106 tension anchors.
“A series of repeated configuration tests will vibrate the stacked parts of the ESM from every possible angle,” says Robert Overy, chief engineer of the ESM Integration Office at NASA Glenn. “We want to push it past the extremes it might experience in the launch environment.”
The ESM is fitted with three protective fairings built by NASA’s prime contractor for Orion, Lockheed Martin. The fairings protect the avionics and electronics during ascent into space, but will eventually jettison off the spacecraft by a series of pyrotechnic shocks. Engineers will test the effectiveness of the pyro-shock action near the end of August. They will also conduct a pyro-shock test of the spacecraft adaptor to simulate the shock the service module will experience during separation.
Finally, the solar array deployment test will be conducted once again on the fully stacked ESM.
The test campaign aims to analyze and validate every element and function of the structural test article, which represents Orion’s power and life support systems. The tests are critical to ensuring the flight readiness and structural integrity of the module containing all the air, nitrogen and water for the astronaut crew, as well as in-space propulsion, batteries and solar arrays to generate power during deep space missions.
The Orion spacecraft is being developed to send astronauts to destinations including an asteroid placed in lunar orbit and on a journey to Mars. It will launch on the agency’s SLS rocket from a modernized spaceport at the NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The first exploration mission of Orion and SLS will allow NASA to use the lunar vicinity as a proving ground to test technologies farther from Earth, and demonstrate it can get to a stable orbit in the area of space near the moon in order to support sending humans to deep space.
Nancy Smith Kilkenny, ATS, LLC
NASA's Glenn Research Center
Last Updated: Nov. 30, 2015
Editor: Kelly Heidman
Source: NASA Press Release, Nov. 30, 2015: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/orion-s-power-system-to-be-put-to-the-test
The media event included the following guests:
- Marcy Kaptur, Congresswoman
- Jim Free, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland
- Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington
- Mark Kirasich, manager for the Orion Program at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston
- Mike Hawes, program manager for Orion at Lockheed Martin
- Nico Dettmann, development department head at ESA
- Oliver Juckenhoefel, vice president and head of the European Service Module program at Airbus Defence and Space
Here's the video from the event:
Here are some of my live-tweets during the event:
This is the ENORMOUS vacuum chamber at the facility where the conditions in space are simulated:
— Balrog's Lair (@BalrogsLair) November 30, 2015
Behind the guests is the (nicely painted) structural test module. This particular unit is for testing only - it will never see flight.
During the beginning of the presentation, a short video showed the Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit, and returning to Earth. The entire time, I was thinking about Kerbal Space Program: staging, solar panel deployment, fuel consumption, decoupling, reentry.
After the event, I got to speak with Greg Williams of NASA, and asked if there were any plans on going back to the Moon and setting up a base before going to Mars. NASA does NOT currently have any plans for lunar surface operations. BUT, they are encouraging commercial space companies to do it. I'm a little saddened by this, but I suppose the logo on the moon base modules, lunar construction equipment, and supply spacecraft isn't as important as long as we get someone back on the lunar surface! And with the ESA Moon Challenge going on, this is being seriously thought about.
I also spoke with Mike Hawes of Lockheed Martin - the only panelist who said he knew what Kerbal Space Program was. I explained to him why I thought the sim was an important tool for education and teaching US space history.
We were given a tour of the facility; the first thing we passed were the fairings for the sides of the service module. I asked our guide: "Fairings? So... the sides of the service module come off, and it flies open and naked in space... not like the pictures?" Yup!
We then walked through the vacuum chamber (see image above). This enormous room has dual 5 million pound hydraulic doors, behind which spacecraft components are subjected to temperature and pressure conditions similar to those in space. Liquid nitrogen can be pumped through the black shrouds hanging from the ceiling to simulate very cold conditions. They also test (explosive) fairings in this chamber; I asked: they catch the fairing in big nets.
We continued on to the vibration testing area where "Launch conditions are simulated." This being shorthand for "we beat the living daylights out of the parts." They look for areas of the spacecraft that might develop unwanted harmonics during thrust, shore them up, and test again.
Lastly, we entered the acoustic test chamber. This weirdly echoing room has speakers on one wall that would make any concert venue envious. But no human can ever be in this room when they fire it up; it is meant to simulate the type of acoustic turbulence a spacecraft can experience while flying in the atmosphere.
We were told it sounds like a hurricane - WAY over in the control room. I get the impression a ham placed in the center of this room would quite literally explode.
Going to this media event and visiting a NASA testing facility was a real treat for me! Thank you to the organizers and employees who made it happen. I plan on attending more NASA social and media events like this in the future.