As SpaceX continues to develop Big Falcon Rocket for missions to moon and Mars, NASA is also taking giant leaps toward the first manned flights of Space Launch System (SLS) — the humongous super-heavy-lift rocket that would take astronauts into deep space, farther than anybody in the history of manned spaceflight.

Orion capsule An Orion test capsule with its three main parachutes touches down in the Arizona desert, Sept. 12. Photo: NASA

Though the very first flight of the massive SLS rocket will be uncrewed, the second mission, named Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), will be marking a major breakthrough by sending a crew of four on a lunar flyby. The mission, slated to take place in 2023, will revolve around capabilities of the SLS and Orion — the spacecraft sitting on top of the vehicle.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be accommodating the astronauts during their deep-space journey and return. The craft is still in the developmental phase, but NASA has been conducting a series of tests to determine it works just as expected during the flight. A major aspect of these tests revolves around ensuring Orion safely survives high-speed atmospheric re-entry and lands on Earth.

For this, the space agency has been exploring the performance of a complex parachute system, one designed to bring down re-entry speeds of more than 300mph to just 20mph. It includes as many as 11 different parachutes and has gone through several tests in the past — all looking at the deployment and function in different scenarios, be it a normal re-entry case or some sort of failure due to intense aerodynamic forces.

On Sept. 12, NASA conducted the eighth and final test of the parachute system, qualifying it for bringing astronauts home safely from EM-2 or future deep-space missions.

As part of this test, a mock variant of the Orion was dropped from a Boeing C-17 aircraft flying nearly 35,000-feet above U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The craft was allowed to fall freely for some time, following which the parachute system was triggered.

First, a single set of chutes was deployed, which jettisoned the protective covering of the remaining chutes. As this happened, the remaining parachutes were deployed, bringing the entire system into action and slowing down the craft for a safe touchdown.

As NASA explained, the system not just included the 11 chutes, but also a series of cannon-like mortars, pyrotechnic bolt cutters, and more than 30 miles of Kevlar lines that connect the craft with parachute material. All of this has to self-deploy in the exact pre-defined sequence within 10 minutes of descent through Earth’s atmosphere, which is what the team noted in the final test.

Prior to this, the team had verified the performance of the system in a range of failure scenarios such as the failure of mortal affecting the deployment of a single type of parachute or damage to the textile component of the chute due to super-intense aerodynamic forces at play.

 “We’re working incredibly hard not only to make sure Orion’s ready to take our astronauts farther than we’ve been before, but to make sure they come home safely,” Mark Kirasich, Orion Program Manager, said in a statement. “The parachute system is complex, and evaluating the parachutes repeatedly through our test series gives us confidence that we’ll be ready for any kind of landing day situation.”