SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft have been greatly successful in their NASA missions, in the form of both the Crew Dragon capsules which carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and the Cargo Dragon supply crafts which carry equipment, research, and supplies to the ISS as well. But this week NASA and SpaceX announced they are investigating an issue with the parachute opening during recent Dragon splashdowns, although the problem doesn’t seem to be a serious or dangerous one.
Dragon craft use parachutes to slow their descent through Earth’s atmosphere before they land in the ocean. But during a resupply mission splashing down on January 24, 2022, one of the four parachutes was delayed in opening. This is the second time a parachute opening has been delayed, following a similar issue that occurred to a Crew Dragon craft last year.
“During the return of the SpaceX CRS-24 mission, teams observed a single main parachute that lagged during inflation like the return of the Crew-2 mission,” NASA spokesman Josh Finch said in a statement to SpaceNews. “The vertical descent rate of both flights was within the system design margins at splashdown, and all four main parachutes fully opened prior to splashdown on both missions.”
Both missions splashed down safely, and the Dragon craft can land safely even with just three parachutes. But NASA and SpaceX are investigating the root cause of the issue by reviewing parachute data. The aim is to complete the review before the launch of the Crew-4 mission, scheduled for April 15, 2022, in which four astronauts will be launched to the ISS.
One possibility is that with four parachutes, one may naturally take longer to inflate as it is effectively blocked by the other three and that this is part of normal operations. “This will be thoroughly investigated, very similar to what we did in a pretty expedited manner after Crew-2,” Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in a call with reporters as reported by space.com. “We’ll use this as another data point and see if we can actually get smarter about how these systems operate so we can make sure that, yes, this really is a nominal operation of this four-chute system.”