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Technical and Rebreather Divers Recover Ares 1-X booster

The booster rocket used in the Ares I-X test flight was found to be badly dented when divers located it in the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the three 150-foot-wide parachutes designed to gently lower NASA’s Ares 1-X first stage booster to the Atlantic Ocean after a dramatic six-minute test flight Wednesday deflated after deployment, officials said Thursday, resulting in a harder splashdown than expected.

Photographs taken by the recovery crew show the four-segment shuttle booster floating upright in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after splashdown. An initial inspection, sources said, revealed the sort of paint blistering that is typically found on shuttle boosters, along with an area of apparent buckling in the lower segment.

The test of the new parachute system was one of several major objectives of the Ares 1-X test flight, intended to generate data needed to perfect the design of NASA’s planned shuttle replacement, the more-powerful Ares 1 rocket.

While the 1-X test version featured a less powerful first stage booster and a dummy upper stage, it weighed roughly the same as an Ares 1. The full-scale parachute system used for its first flight test was designed to handle the heavier weight of the Ares 1 and its fall from a higher altitude.

A NASA spokeswoman said late Thursday the test rocket’s drogue parachute, used to slow and stabilize the vehicle before the main parachutes are released, deployed normally. All three main chutes then released and began inflating as planned in a two-step procedure. Two of the mains apparently inflated fully, but the third collapsed.

A source said the deflated parachute contacted one of the others as it whipped about in the wind, causing a partial deflation. That could not be immediately confirmed, although a splashdown in that condition might explain the buckling seen in the lower segment of the rocket’s case.

Shuttle boosters, which are lowered to the ocean by two 130-foot-wide parachutes, can be damaged depending on the impact angle and sea state, engineers say. But it’s not yet known what caused the problem with the Ares 1-X booster.

The 327-foot-tall Ares 1-X was launched Wednesday from complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. The major goals of the unmanned test flight were to collect engineering data on how the tall, slender rocket flew through the dense lower atmosphere, how the structure responded to aerodynamic and acoustic forces and how the new parachute system, scaled for the planned Ares 1 rocket, performed.

The first stage boosted Ares 1-X to an altitude of about 25 miles and a velocity of 4.5 times the speed of sound in two minutes of powered flight. Explosive charges then fired to separate the spent first stage from the dummy second stage and small upward-facing rockets fired to pull the first stage away.

In a surprise, the upper stage went into a slow, flat spin instead of continuing upward on a nose-forward trajectory as expected. A moment after separation, another set of small rockets fired as planned to put the first stage into a similar spin to prevent a nose-down re-entry that might interfere with parachute deployment.

The two stages appeared to come close to each other as they tumbled, but that could have been an illusion due to the viewing angle of a long-range tracking camera.

The behavior of the first stage appeared normal during powered flight and after separation. A drogue parachute, used to slow and stabilize the rocket before main parachute deployment, could be seen in video from the rocket, but the on-board views cut off before the main chutes could be seen.

Recovery crews consisting of closed circuit rebreather divers and technical divers are expect to finish towing the big rocket back to a processing facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early Friday. Engineers will be standing by to remove an on-board data recorder that is expected to provide a wealth of information about the rocket’s performance.

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One response

  1. John

    Strange as it seems boosters on the space shuttle frequently buckle. Hitting a whale is one of the explanations floated but the real reason is vortex shedding causing the case to vibrate at levels that buckles the case. Forget the chutes and the impacts it is vibration as the case falls.

    February 2, 2010 at 12:52 am