SpaceX completes testing of SuperDraco engines (with video)

SpaceX and NASA announced that the propulsion system designed to safely abort the upcoming crewed Dragon capsule — dubbed SuperDraco — has been successfully fired 27 times and completed development testing. The SuperDraco thrusters are scaled up versions of the small Draco thruster used for maneuvering and docking control on the upper stages of the Falcon 9 rocket, the upcoming Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon spacecraft. SuperDraco provides roughly 200x more thrust than its little brother, and is designed for a variety of use-cases and capabilities. Each spacecraft will be fitted with eight SuperDraco thrusters, and each thruster provides roughly 1/9 the performance of a single Merlin 1D. The Falcon-9 launches with nine Merlin 1D engines, to give you an idea of how the systems compare.

SuperDraco is a 3D printed engine that’s designed to be throttled from 20% to 100% of thrust and can be restarted multiple times. The SuperDraco engines are going to be used to ensure that a crew capsule can abort a mission safely and either land or splashdown. Spacecraft that carry the SuperDraco system will also have redundant parachutes to ensure that the crew’s survival doesn’t depend on a single mechanism, and the SuperDraco engines have enough thrust to safely abort a mission even with one engine failure.

crewdragon_superdracos

One of the unique capabilities of the SuperDraco is its ability to perform what’s known as “propulsive landing.” When Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, it was far too heavy to perform aerobraking in the thin Martian atmosphere. NASA designed a rocket-powered hovercrane to perform the operation instead, and SuperDraco could perform a similar maneuver with a much heavier payload. The engine is designed to use a storable liquid propellant for fuel (meaning it doesn’t need to be kept cryogenically cold). A video of the most recent test firing is embedded below.

The extensive abort capabilities of the Dragon V2 passenger-rated capsule are a departure from NASA’s traditional philosophy. The Space Shuttle may have been an icon of human exploration for thirty years, but it had limited abort capabilities, no crew ejection mechanism, and no way to safely return a crew to Earth if a problem developed in orbit. The investigation into Challenger’s destruction indicated that the crew survived the initial explosion and may have been alive and conscious until the crew cabin slammed into the ocean at more than 200 miles per hour, while there was no way to save Columbia’s crew short of an emergency attempt to bring Atlantis to readiness (and that plan was not attempted).

NASA’s goal with the new Dragon V2 capsule and the crew module being worked on at Boeing is to avoid ever having to face such scenarios again and to safeguard against multiple failure modes that could lead to the death of a crew. The flexibility and capability of the new SuperDraco should help achieve that goal.

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