SpaceX completes emergency crew capsule escape

SpaceX completes emergency crew capsule escape
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Media captionWatch the SpaceX successful emergency landing test

SpaceX has conducted a test of the abort manoeuvre it would use if one of its crew-carrying rockets ever developed a problem during flight.

The rehearsal at Kennedy Space Center saw a Falcon-9 vehicle's ascent into the sky deliberately terminated just 80 seconds after lift-off.

The astronaut capsule on top fired its escape engines to carry the vessel clear of the "faulty" booster.

Parachutes brought the capsule to a safe splashdown some 30km off Florida.

No humans were involved in the practice abort; the only occupants of the Dragon ship were a couple of Anthropomorphic Test Devices, or "dummies".

This was considered to be the last major milestone for California's SpaceX company before the US space agency (Nasa) certifies the firm to carry astronauts to the International Space Station later this year.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Falcon rocket broke apart in flames

Nasa has contracted both SpaceX and the aerospace giant Boeing to take over routine transportation of astronauts to low-Earth orbit.

Not since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011 have American crews been able to launch from American soil.

The apparently flawless in-flight abort demonstration on Sunday should bring this long hiatus to close, perhaps by early summer.

SpaceX had promised the escape manoeuvre would be spectacular, and so it proved.

As the Dragon capsule fired its escape engines, the Falcon booster underneath lost aerodynamic stability, broke apart and exploded in a huge ball of flame.

But by then, the crew capsule was well away, continuing to climb skyward thanks to its powerful superDraco thrusters.

Image copyright SPACEX
Image caption There was no-one aboard apart from a couple of "dummies"

Onboard video showed the Dragon drop its service-module segment, or "trunk", before releasing two drogue parachutes.

Four main chutes then emerged.

These large envelopes lowered Dragon into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean a little over nine minutes after the Falcon's lift-off.

The importance of having an effective abort capability was underlined by the 2018 experience of Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and Nasa flight engineer Nick Hague.

They were in the midst of a routine journey to the ISS when their Soyuz rocket damaged itself two minutes into the ascent. The men only escaped death because their capsule also had an emergency system to pull the vessel to safety.

It will be recalled also that the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 had no such escape capability and all seven crew members died when the orbiter began to break up 72 seconds into its mission.

Both SpaceX and Boeing were supposed to make their "astronaut taxi services" available in 2017, but the companies have had to grapple with - and overcome - some tricky technical challenges.

SpaceX, for example, saw one of its capsules explode on a testbed in April last year. And Boeing, which calls its crew capsule Starliner, hit trouble on an uncrewed dummy run to the space station last month.

The Starliner experienced an anomaly immediately after launch that led it to waste fuel reserves, leaving it short of the propellant necessary to reach the orbiting outpost.

All that said, it seems likely both SpaceX and Boeing will get to debut crewed flights in the coming months.

Image copyright SPACEX
Image caption Nasa's Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken (R) are waiting to make the first crewed flight in Dragon

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