A spaceship that could carry the next wave of astronauts to an asteroid or beyond is being prepared for a new round of tests at a Lockheed Martin facility near Denver.
Engineers have attached a launch-abort system to the nose of the capsule and will subject the combined spacecraft to a series of experiments to see if it can withstand the rigours of blast-off, Lockheed Martin said.
The launch-abort system, essentially a rocket attached to the nose of the capsule, could lift the capsule off its booster rocket and carry it to safety if a problem developed before or during launch.
Lockheed Martin, of Bethesda, Maryland, is building the capsule, called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, under a 7.5 billion dollar Nasa contract issued in 2006.
The capsule was originally part of President George W Bush's 100 billion dollar programme to return astronauts to the moon, called Constellation. President Barack Obama cancelled the programme last year, saying the US would concentrate on developing new rocket technology instead. Mr Obama then revived the Orion portion of the programme amid criticism that his plan lacked details and put US space leadership at risk.
Orion does not yet have a destination. Nasa has said it could service the space station in low Earth orbit or take four astronauts on more distant missions of up to 21 days. Lockheed Martin officials have said Orion could explore the far side of the moon, land humans on asteroids or take them to one of the moons of Mars, where they could control robotic instruments on the surface.
In the next round of tests, the capsule and launch-abort system will be subjected to sound vibrations at a Lockheed Martin facility in Waterton Canyon south of Denver.
The 55-foot (16.7-metre)-tall assembly will be lifted by a crane into a tall, lift shaft-like chamber. Inside, more than a dozen horns powered by compressed nitrogen will create a thunderous low-pitch noise at 150 decibels. That will trigger vibrations like the ones generated by a launch or deployment of the abort system.
The abort system was successfully tested in May 2010 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. An Orion mock-up was rocketed about a mile into the air at speeds of about 450 mph in just 2.5 seconds. The capsule then deployed parachutes and floated to the ground. It landed about a mile north of the launch site.
After the vibration tests are finished, the spacecraft will be taken to the Nasa Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, for landing tests. It would land in the ocean.