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Sci-Tech

NASA's giant vibrating table: Like Magic Fingers for spacecraft tests

NASA is shaking things up in its preparations for future manned space flights with a 55,000-pound table designed to replicate the forces of a rocket during launch.

NASA vibrating table
The vibration-simulation table is lowered into place. NASA

NASA is hard at work on the Orion spacecraft, a vessel destined to one day ferry astronauts to far-off destinations like an asteroid or Mars. That's a serious responsibility. Orion is nearing an expected unmanned test flight this December and the space agency is in hard-core testing mode to be sure the craft is ready to take off.

NASA needs to be sure Orion can handle the rigors of launching on top of the new Space Launch System rocket, a rocket more powerful than any in history. To that end, NASA ordered up a 55,000-pound vibration-simulation table. The massive device is 22 feet wide and comes stocked with a slew of servo-hydraulic actuators that vibrate the table to replicate the kind of forces a spacecraft would endure while strapped to a honking big rocket.

This Magic-Fingers-on-steroids contraption is now in residence at NASA's Space Power Facility at the Glenn Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio. It joins what NASA describes as the world's largest vacuum chamber and the world's most powerful acoustic testing chamber for spacecraft. That makes the Space Power Facility a one-stop shop for tests that can re-create the rigorous conditions Orion will encounter when in use.

"Launch is the most dynamic and dangerous part of spaceflight. It takes an incredible amount of power for a rocket to boost a spacecraft like Orion into space. And all that power results in intense shaking. Spacecraft systems have to be specially designed to work in spite of the vibration -- this table lets us test them to make sure that they do," Jerry Carek, Space Power Facility manager, said in a statement.

The first Orion module to be tested at the facility will be a service module built by the European Space Agency. Later, NASA will test Orion's crew module, which is designed to carry astronauts on missions. If NASA eventually launches successful long-term manned missions using Orion, then at least a small part of that triumph will be attributable to the testing done on a massive, vibrating table.