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Northrop Grumman
Flames and smoke shoot skyward during the test firing of the Northrop Grumman-manufactured launch abort motor in Promontory, Box Elder County, on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. The test confirmed the motor can activate within milliseconds and will perform as designed under cold temperatures.

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — Blasting off into orbit is risky even under the best of conditions, and making sure the engines responsible for protecting astronauts can operate even in frigid cold weather is one way to mitigate the inherent danger of human space exploration.

On Thursday, Northrop Grumman conducted a ground test of its launch abort motor that will be used for NASA’s Orion spacecraft — an effort to ensure astronaut safety in case of a worst-case scenario during launch or early stages of flight. The Orion spacecraft is designed to carry a crew and launch on NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System for missions beyond the moon.

This particular test was specifically conducted to determine how the motor performed at cold temperatures — in this case at 27 degrees.

"Being a cold test means we can fire the motor down in Florida at these colder temperatures and have confidence that the motor will perform as expected," Erica Sandoval, team lead for the Northrop Grumman rocket motor and loaded motor program, said. "This is very important because we need to show that our new system for safety works properly for the astronauts."

"You really want to make sure you have a reliable product that will work in all of the situations required," she added.

The abort motor is the primary motor in the launch abort system on Orion and in an emergency, the system would safely eject the crew module away from the launch vehicle, she said.

"Our motor pulls the capsule away from the main (rocket) stack if there were an issue," she said.

Previous large-scale tests of the launch abort motor included a development motor test in 2008, a launch pad abort test of the complete system in 2010 and the qualification motor-1 static test in 2017. This most recent test is the next step in the ongoing progression of the launch abort system, she said.

Standing over 17 feet tall, the abort motor is 3 feet in diameter and equipped with a manifold that has four nozzles and turns the flow of the flames to create a pulling motion, explained Steve Sara, program director for Northrop Grumman's launch support system. The abort motor’s function is to pull the crew capsule to safety in an emergency situation on the pad or during launch, up to 300,000 feet in altitude, he said.

The abort motor is fitted into a specially designed vertical test stand, with the nozzles pointed toward the sky. During the test, the motor fired for five seconds with the exhaust plume flames reaching up to 100 feet in height — emitting smoke thick enough to temporarily obstruct the sun. Thrust delivered by the motor can reach 400,000 pounds in one-eighth of a second, he added.

"(The motor) is really important for safety," Sara said. "This system greatly enhances astronaut safety."

Engineers and scientists will examine data produced by the motor and the hardware to check the results against what was to be expected in their computer models, he said.

The Orion spacecraft will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry an astronaut crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain astronauts during their missions and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities, he said.

Sandoval noted that Exploration Mission-1 will be the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems using the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The first series of increasingly complex missions scheduled for 2019 will be unmanned flight testing that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, she said.

A manned space flight using the abort system is planned for 2023, she said.

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown, traveling 280,000 miles from Earth — far beyond the moon — over the course of about a three-week mission, Sandoval said. Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before, she said.

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While safety is the main focus of the testing, the allure of space travel continues to be one of the major motivations for scientists working on projects such as the Orion program, said Mike Fuller, strategy and business development manager for Northrop Grumman.

"It's still so inspirational and it still grabs you. It's going out (in space) and seeing things you don't get to see every day," he said. "The chance to go out and see things that (humans) have never seen before, that's still something we should be striving for."

Correction: An earlier version indicated the first manned space flight using the abort system is planned for 2020. The date is actually 2023.