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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with 3D printed SuperDraco engines is now officially flying

Elon Musk’s privately owned commercial space venture SpaceX – which one day will fly humans to orbit and eventually to the Moon – launched its crew-capable space vehicle this morning for its first demo mission, titled Crew Demo -1. The Crew Dragon took off Saturday, March 2, at around 2.49 am, from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This test flight without crew on board the spacecraft is intended to demonstrate SpaceX’s capabilities to safely and reliably fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Following the successful stage separation – which once again market a significant milestone in the private space industry – SpaceX landed Falcon 9’s first stage on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship, stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Crew Dragon, designed from the beginning to be one of the safest human space vehicles ever built, benefits from the flight heritage of the current iteration of Dragon, which restored the United States’ capability to deliver and return significant amounts of cargo to and from the International Space Station. Dragon has completed 16 missions to and from the orbiting laboratory. To support human spaceflight, Crew Dragon features an environmental control and life support system, which provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members.

Crew Dragon
Image shows the Crew Dragon engines igniting after successful separation from the Falcon 9 rocket.

The spacecraft is equipped with a highly reliable launch escape system capable of carrying crew to safety at any point during ascent or in the unlikely event of an anomaly on the pad. This system is powered by the Draco Engines, which were among the first rocket engines to be entirely 3D printed. While the crew can take manual control of the spacecraft if necessary, Crew Dragon missions will autonomously dock and undock with the International Space Station. After undocking from the space station and reentering Earth’s atmosphere, Crew Dragon will use an enhanced parachute system to splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

On this first test flight, Crew Dragon will transport roughly 400 pounds of crew supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. In addition, the spacecraft will be carrying mass simulators and an anthropomorphic test device (ATD) that is fitted with sensors around the head, neck, and spine to gather data ahead of SpaceX’s second demonstration mission with NASA astronauts on board the spacecraft.

To the Moon and beyond

The Drago vehicle will eventually fly private citizens on a trip around the Moon. Some have already paid a significant deposit for a Moon mission. Space X expects to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and they expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development, is a key enabler for this mission. In addition, this will make use of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was developed with internal SpaceX funding. Falcon Heavy is due to launch its first test flight this summer and, once successful, will be the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V and more than double the thrust of the next largest launch vehicle currently flying.

Crew Dragon

As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Space X was initially scheduled to launch its Crew Dragon (Dragon Version 2) spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2018. A subsequent mission with crew was expected to fly in the second quarter of 2018 and may now take place later in 2019.

SpaceX is currently contracted to perform an average of four Dragon 2 missions to the ISS per year, three carrying cargo and one carrying crew. By also flying privately crewed missions, which NASA has encouraged, long-term costs to the government decline and more flight reliability history is gained, benefiting both government and private missions.

Once operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA, SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth. Lift-off will be from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.

Designed from the beginning to carry humans, the Dragon spacecraft already has a long flight heritage. These missions will build upon that heritage, extending it to deep space mission operations, an important milestone as they work towards their ultimate goal of transporting humans to Mars. As 3ders.org reported in 2015, SpaceX 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 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.

Crew Dragon

3D printing to space

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.

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