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ATK tests the largest parachute in the world

The world's largest parachute floats in the Arizona sky during a test. The parachute is being developed with the help of ATK.
The world's largest parachute floats in the Arizona sky during a test. The parachute is being developed with the help of ATK.

One might think of a parachute as huge if it could carry a ton safely to the ground. But what about a chute that weighed a ton itself? Now that's BIG.

The prototype for a parachute 150 feet in diameter, to be used to return moon rocket boosters to Earth, was tested recently in the Arizona desert, Alliant Techsystems announced Tuesday. It was the third of five scheduled drop tests.

The Utah-based rocket builder is the prime contractor to build the Ares I rocket that is planned to take Americans back to the moon. When used in actual rocket firings, three of the great parachutes will lower the spent stage.

The test was carried out by Alliant Tech and its subcontractor, United Space Alliance. The parachute was developed from the present 136-foot-diameter chutes used with space shuttle boosters.

It was the first of six main parachute drop tests in development of the deceleration system for the Ares I crew launch vehicle, according to ATK.

The moon rocket boosters will be similar to those used in the space shuttle but would carry an extra segment for added thrust. The new booster will perform as the Ares I first stage.

As with the shuttle, the rockets will be manufactured at Alliant Techsystems' factory at Promontory, Box Elder County.

An immense C-17 Globemaster aircraft carried the parachute and its attached 42,000 weight to 17,500 feet above sea level, before releasing them. They accelerated and then the parachute deployed.

"The test went flawlessly and met our initial expectations," said Mike Kahn, ATK vice president of Space Launch Systems, quoted in a press release. "We have a great team of individuals and subcontractors who helped ensure the success of this important test and bring us closer to full development of this new five-segment booster."

Dan Mann, USA's Ares Stage I program manager, was quoted as saying it's exciting to take the knowledge and experience gained from the space shuttle program and apply it to the next generation of rockets.

George Torres, Alliant spokesman, told the Deseret Morning News that while the burn time for the new stage will be similar to that of the space shuttle's boosters, "We have a lot more thrust coming out of there."

The Ares I first stage will raise the crew launch vehicle higher, before it drops off, than is the case with the shuttle boosters. That, too, contributes to the need for a new parachute.

Among many other tasks, Alliant Techsystems will integrate the parachutes into the space vehicle.

"We design a spot for that on top of the five-segment booster, and then there's a composite case for it," Torres said.

While Alliant designs the system, the parachute is made by USA. Torres said, "We tell them the size, weight and where it fits in, and integrate it when it is ready to go."