Watch NASA's fiery Orion launch abort system ace its latest test

NASA's Artemis 2 mission is one step closer to launch, with the Orion spacecraft acing another fiery pre-takeoff test as it prepares to carry astronauts into space. Due to launch sometime by 2023, Artemis 2 will be the US space agency's deepest manned trip into the solar system so far, and as you'd expect NASA is taking no chances when it comes to safety.

We've already seen some of the dramatic earlier stages of that safety process. Earlier in 2019, for example, the Ascent Abort-2 test put Orion's launch abort system through its paces at Cape Canaveral. That saw the spacecraft mounted to a missile and carried six miles into the air, before the abort sequence was triggered and the crew module pushed away to safety.

Next is Orion's launch abort system attitude control motor, or ACM. That was trialed by Northrop Grumman, which is making the system for NASA, at its Elkton, Maryland facility. It's designed to work in sequence with the abort motor trialed in the first test.

Should something go wrong with the launch, first the abort motor rapidly separates the rocket and the crew module. The ACM then weighs in, to steer and orient the capsule. Finally, the jettison motor ignites, in order to split the launch abort system from Orion, and allow the parachutes to deploy safely.

As you might expect, it's a lot of very precisely timed action, and the whole thing has to take place rapidly if the astronauts onboard are to survive and make it back down to Earth. The good news is that the thirty second trial of the second part of that process went smoothly. NASA says that the ACM was capable of producing more than 7,000 pounds of thrust, spread among its eight valves.

That's sufficient force "to steer Orion and its crew to a safe distance," NASA explains. "All three motors will be certified for future crewed flights after qualification tests are completed later this year."

Artemis 2 is a big step for NASA. While it won't see astronauts actually land on the Moon, it'll be a valuable test to see if the methodology the space agency has for that eventual mission will hold up in practice. After taking off on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, Orion will loop around Earth twice, firing its engines periodically and building up sufficient speed to drive it all the way to the Moon.

At the Moon, the process will be repeated, albeit in a truncated fashion. Orion will loop around the Moon once, using the gravitational pull of Earth's satellite to slingshot it back. That way, the space craft won't need to rely on propulsion. Exactly how long this will all take is being left fairly flexible, somewhere between the minimum eight days and at most three weeks, to give NASA the opportunity to conduct more experiments as well as collect fresh imagery data of the Moon for future landings.