The engines that SpaceX ignited today are part of the Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system — a test of the important part of the spacecraft that will activate in case of an emergency during launch. The Crew Dragon is designed to travel into space on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, but if for some reason that rocket fails in mid-air, the emergency engines embedded in the hull of the spacecraft will ignite and carry the capsule away to safety, after which the capsule could land using its own parachutes.
Full duration static fire test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape system complete – SpaceX and NASA teams are now reviewing test data and working toward an in-flight demonstration of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities pic.twitter.com/CMHvMRBQcW— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 13, 2019
These emergency abort engines, known as SuperDracos, have recently become a source of concern for SpaceX. In April, a Crew Dragon test capsule exploded after the engines had been ignited a few times during routine testing. SpaceX immediately formed a team to figure out what happened, which after months of investigations revealed that a leaky valve had caused some of the propellant from the engines to cross over into another system, sparking a chain reaction that destroyed the capsule. SpaceX assured the public that it would redesign the system and replace the valves moving forward.
Wednesday’s engine test closes the investigation and marks another testing milestone for the spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to fly NASA astronauts on commercially made US vehicles. The next step for the company is to test out the emergency abort engines mid-flight. In 2015, the company performed what is known as a pad abort test, which ignited the SuperDraco engines on a Crew Dragon sitting alone on a launch pad. The test was a success, and the engines carried the Crew Dragon up and away from the pad to the ocean, where the vehicle splashed down with parachutes.
SpaceX team has completed 13 successful tests in a row of upgraded Mark 3 parachutes for Crew Dragon. Most recent test demonstrated the parachute system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event that one of the four main parachutes fails. pic.twitter.com/VJzDeS8UAG— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 3, 2019
Now, SpaceX wants to see if the SuperDracos can do the same thing on top of an actual rocket – paving the way for tests with an actual crew of astronauts. Once that test is complete, SpaceX will be done with most of its test flight milestones for the Commercial Crew Program. The company already sent an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the ISS in March, showing that the capsule could successfully dock to the station and then return to Earth via parachutes. If everything goes according to plan, it’s possible that SpaceX could fly to ISS as early as the first part of 2020.