Nov 13, 2015 | By Kira

After months of rigorous evaluations and exams, SpaceX has completed the development testing of its SuperDraco rocket engines, which would play a key role in the Launch Abort System (LAS) designed to safely abort astronauts from the upcoming crewed Dragon Capsule in the event of a launch failure. During the recent testing at SpaceX’s development facility in Texas, the SuperDraco thrusters were successfully fired 27 times, progressing through various thrust cycles.

SpaceX has been developing the Dragon as a free-flying spacecraft capable of delivering both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. It made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and safely return cargo to Earth, a feat previously achieved only by governments. Though it currently has only carried cargo to space, SpaceX says that they designed it from the beginning to carry humans, and are currently under an agreement with NASA to develop refinements—including the pivotal LAS system—that would enable the Dragon to safely fly human crewmembers into space.

In order to design the SuperDraco engines, SpaceX embraced 3D printing technology in order to cut down on cost, waste, and make the production process more flexible in general. A key component of the rocket engine, known as the combustion chamber, was fabricated entirely with 3D printing on an EOS metal 3D printer. The use of Inconel super alloy ensured superior strength, ductility, fracture resistance and a lower variability in materials properties.

The 3D printed engine is designed to be throttled from 20% to 100% of thrust and can be restarted multiple times. They will be used in the LAS system in order to ensure that the crew capsule can abort a mission safely and either land or splashdown in the event that a launch should fail. However, despite the stringent testing that the SuperDraco’s must undergo, the Dragon spacecraft will also include redundant parachutes to ensure that the crew’s survival doesn’t depend on a single mechanism.

Of course, astronaut safety is the first and foremost concern of NASA when developing a crewed spacecraft, and since the horrific events surrounding the Challenger launch, the space agency has been developing the most stringent tests possible to ensure that they would be able to safeguard against multiple failure modes that could lead in anyway to the death of a crew. Concurrent with SpaceX’s Dragon development, key competitor Boeing has also been working on their own Commercial Crew Development program.

However, while Boeing has opted for the traditional ‘rocket tower’ design for their Starliner spacecraft’s LAS system, SpaceX went a completely different way, integrating a system of four pairs of SuperDraco thrusters built into the side of the crew capsule.

Prior to the most recent testing phase, the Pad Abort Test was successfully completed in May 2015. For its next steps, SpaceX will continue to evaluate the performance of its thrusters, potentially desigining them so they can be use during the descent phase as a viable replacement for the current parachute system. The company expects that the first manned test flight will take place within the next 2-3 years.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Spacecraft takes flight during Pad Abort Test in May 2015



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