SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft had an anomaly during the tests on Saturday


After a successful demonstration mission of its Crew Dragon spacecraft in March, SpaceX has prepared this vehicle for a critical abortion test launch this summer. During this test flight, following the launch of Florida in a Falcon 9 booster, the Dragon will fire its powerful SuperDraco engines to show that the spacecraft can safely exit the rocket in case of a booster problem.

On Saturday, as part of preparations for this abortion test, the company experienced some sort of anomaly. According to a company spokesman, "Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test bench at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The initial tests were completed successfully, but the final test resulted in an anomaly in the test bench. Ensuring that our systems meet stringent safety standards and detecting such anomalies before flight are the main reasons we test. Our teams are investigating and working closely with our NASA partners. "

It's not immediately clear how significantly this incident will affect SpaceX as it works toward Dragon's first manned mission that will take astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. Earlier, sources said the flight could occur around October under ideal conditions. If the problems are serious, Saturday's crash could substantially delay this schedule – although in the past SpaceX has shown a propensity to quickly diagnose glitches and quickly return to flight, with only 4.5 months of inactivity following a rocket failure in September 2016.

SpaceX has been developing SuperDraco propellants for nearly a decade to enable human flights aboard Dragon. There are four "pods" of two engines, each located around the Dragon's capsule, and each SuperDraco engine has a thrust of 16,000 pounds. The SuperDracos test began in early 2012, using several buoyancy cycles on a test stand at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

The engines burn hypergolic propellants – monomethylhydrazine, as fuel, and nitrogen tetroxide as the oxidant. These are quite toxic compounds, but unlike other "cleaner" rocket fuels, they are more easily storable in both soil and space.

These escape systems are one of the most difficult aspects of spacecraft development, as they should work during the most dynamic times of spaceflight. NASA will undoubtedly examine this flaw closely before it allows its astronauts to fly in Dragon. Exhaust systems have already caused problems as part of NASA's Commercial Crew program, which provided funds to private companies for access to low-Earth orbit. In June 2018, when Boeing prepared its Starliner spacecraft for a test of its emergency escape system, a propellant leak occurred near the end of an engine test and seriously damaged the service module. Boeing had intended to complete testing its abortion system last summer, but still needs to reschedule the flight 10 months later, apparently due to complications from this accident.

Although these escape systems are rarely used, they are the last line of defense when an emergency occurs. In the event of a rocket failure, such as occurred last October with a Russian Soyuz vehicle during a crew launch for the International Space Station, they are truly the difference between life and death.

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