NASA and the United States Air Force have successfully tested a new super-chute system aimed at reclaiming reusable Ares booster rockets. On February 28, 2009 a 50,000 pound dummy rocket booster was dropped in the Arizona desert and stopped by a system of five parachutes before it crashed to the ground. The booster landed softly without any damage.
The Ares super-chute system consists of five parachutes that work in concert to control the landing of the spent booster rocket and allow its recovery for later reuse. The system includes a small pilot chute that pulls out a drogue chute, a 68 foot diameter chute that slows the booster and orients it vertically setting the stage for the release of three main parachutes that handle the final slowdown and deploy once the booster is oriented properly. All three elements were tested in Arizona.
The test dropped a 50,000 pound steel missile-shaped stand-in for a spent Ares booster from a C-17 plane moving at 175 knots at an elevation of 25,000 feet. Flown by Chief Pilot Frank Batteas of the Dryden Flight Research Center, this was the heaviest payload ever carried by a C-17. Batteas was one of the original C-17 test pilots and has more than 1,000 hours logged in on the craft. His experience allowed NASA to focus on other elements of the test rather than issues with the plane.
The test was delayed slightly because of 80 mile per hour winds, but went off without a hitch once flown. The fake booster was easily recovered and, like the real thing, its modeling will be reused in future tests. It has cavities built in allowing its weight to be adjusted to 70,000, 77,000, 85,000, and 90,000 pounds. Each of these weights will be tested with the Ares super-chute in the future. The schedule and specific details of future tests is not known at this time.
TFOT has previously reported on tests of other technologies associated with the Ares launch vehicles or the Constellation program, including the Ares I preliminary design review, tests of the Common Extensible Cryogenic Engine allowing gentle landings on the moon, Mars, or other bodies, completion of a series of Ares engine tests, and Antarctic tests of an inflatable habitat that might be used on the moon.
You can read more about the Ares super-chute testing in this NASA press release. More about other progress with the Ares launch vehicles can be found on the NASA Ares project page and about the Constellation program as a whole in the NASA Constellation project page.