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Jason DavisNovember 11, 2015

SpaceX Completes Crew Dragon Propulsion System Development Testing

SpaceX has completed development testing on its SuperDraco propulsion system, used to propel the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft away from a Falcon rocket in the event of a launch failure. NASA made the announcement yesterday on its Commercial Crew Program blog. Agency officials also confirmed the tests supported a SpaceX Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) milestone. Both SpaceX and Boeing must complete a series of these milestones before each company can begin using its respective crew vehicle to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Crew Dragon has four pairs of SuperDraco engines positioned around the capsule. In the event of a launch vehicle emergency, these engines—which are fueled by hypergolic propellants that ignite on contact—can blast the spacecraft away from its carrier rocket. In about five seconds, Crew Dragon can put a half-kilometer between itself and a disintegrating Falcon 9. SpaceX eventually plans to use these same engines for powered capsule landings.

NASA and SpaceX said the company has completed 27 SuperDraco test firings. Yesterday, SpaceX released a new video from one of those tests: 

Please accept marketing-cookies to watch this video.


SuperDraco test fire

Last May, Crew Dragon took flight for the first time during a pad abort test from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company recently released new high-speed video from that test:

Slow-mo footage of our pad abort test in May, a critical test in preparation for our first human missions.

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 30, 2015

Since being awarded multi-billion dollar CCtCap contracts last year, SpaceX and Boeing have been working to complete five mandatory and additional, company-specific test milestones. These checkpoints culminate with a crewed test flight to the ISS, during which a NASA astronaut comes along for the ride. Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, and Suni Williams have been selected to participate in those flights. 

NASA does not maintain a public list of each company’s optional milestones, citing the technological and programmatic differences between the two vehicles, the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon. However, the mandatory milestones for each company are:

SpaceX is also continuing to prepare its Falcon 9 rocket for a return to flight. In June, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft disintegrated en route to the ISS. CEO Elon Musk said the likely culprit was a broken strut supporting a liquid helium bottle

In mid-October, it was announced 11 Orbcomm satellites would fly on the vehicle’s return-to-flight launch, "targeted to take place in the next six to eight weeks." That puts a launch sometime after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. NASA and SpaceX have not yet finalized a date for the next Dragon cargo mission. The next scheduled resupply flights are a Russian Progress vehicle on November 21, and an Orbital ATK Cygnus on December 3.

SuperDraco test montage

NASA / SpaceX

SuperDraco test montage

Read more: commercial spaceflight, future technology

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Jason Davis

Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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