Ghost circuit breakers scare NASA as Orion returns to Earth

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After the Orion spacecraft entered its trajectory to Earth earlier today, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials shared more details about what lies ahead and the various issues the agency encountered on the mission. Orion is scheduled to touch down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11, and its return burn earlier today put it on a landing path. However, the landing site has not yet been chosen, and the space agency will pick it up later this week.

NASA will continue testing the Orion spacecraft even after it lands in the Pacific Ocean

Today marks the 20th day of the Artemis 1 mission, and the highlight of that day was the flyby burn that put the spacecraft on its way to Earth after it came within 80 miles of the lunar surface. Now that the route is set for Orion, NASA will continue testing it to collect more data for future crew flights. The next mission in the Artemis program is Artemis 2, which will see a crew fly around the Moon on a different trajectory than the current mission.

Orion’s circumnavigation of the Moon has ended for the time being, and it will now seek to complete its landing objectives for a waterfall in the Pacific Ocean. While returning home, NASA tested its auxiliary engines for longer burn times to meet future mission standards. Throughout Artemis 1, teams fired these engines for 17 seconds, but the tests fired them for longer periods to assess the impact on the solar panels.

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These tests were successful, and they saw temperatures within ten degrees. NASA also tested the heaters for the fuel and water lines to match Artemis 2 requirements to discover that up to 90 watts of energy savings were provided, Orion deputy program manager Debbie Kurth explained.

The path of Orion’s return to Earth. Image: NASA

As it returns to Earth, the spaceship will continue to undergo more testing. According to Ms. Kurth, these tests include a repeat of the “solar array pavilion survey” test. This was done earlier during the mission, and it’s testing decomposition into arrays. Engineers will test the arrays again to check if any structural or other changes have occurred since they were pressurized during the distant retrograde orbit and lunar flight to get an idea for future missions. Other tests include checking propulsion system valves for leaks after the lunar flight to enable NASA to develop a flight profile for future missions.

The main problem that puzzled engineers was the Orion’s onboard power system. Some of the tests involved modifying the Ship Service Unit’s Power Control Distribution Unit (PCDU). This receives energy from the solar arrays and distributes it through feeders to various systems, such as flight control and reaction control drivers.

NASA divided the eight feeders into two groups of four, and one of those groups got stuck. This caused the propulsion systems to go into standby mode, which caused six of Orion’s twelve additional thrusters to go into standby mode as well. In general, the current selectors run when a command is sent, but this time it fires on its own, with no command present in the history to open the current selectors.

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Orion re-entry profile while ‘jumping’ the atmosphere before landing. Image: NASA

Michael Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager at NASA, described the problem as follows:

In your home, light switch or circuit breaker, this is the control device. You literally flip a switch and it closes the circuit, and this is the action or command that does it. What is a little strange to us is that there is no record of the vehicle’s on-board control unit sending a command to open the current closing limiter. Therefore, in your home, the device is the object of command; In this case, there is a separate control unit that tells the current limiter to open or close. And there is no record of the command device saying you should open or close it. This thing opens or closes without that box, the command device, telling it to do so. So there are some abnormal behaviors that we’re trying to understand.

Orion will land at an altitude of 400,000 feet while traveling at approximately 24.529 miles per hour. The “jump” will occur just over seven minutes later at 291,382 feet at 16,824 miles per hour to slow it down to the speed at which spacecraft generally enter from low Earth orbit. It will decelerate to 528 mph at 50,000 feet, and the front bay cover will be shed at 22,845 ft at 285 mph. The main parachutes will disperse at 5,320 feet, with water splashing at speeds of 20 miles per hour.

However, the testing wouldn’t end there, as NASA would hold Orion for two hours after it was scattered to study its heat dissipation. This is the “resident” heat inside the spaceship, and the test will allow teams to determine the temperature profile of the ship’s cabin. This will test for heat escaping back into the vehicle even as the ambient and heat shield cools it. Additionally, as it reenters the atmosphere, Orion’s reaction control engines will be fired at various points to gain more insights into the thermodynamic profiles of flight at supersonic speeds. Orion uses 11 parachutes to reduce its spray speed.

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NASA will choose a landing site for the Orion spacecraft on Thursday, and the ship will land off the coast of San Diego in the Pacific Ocean on December 11th. After landing, NASA aims to fly Artemis 2 in 2024, and the mission will test the life support system and close docking technologies.

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