NASA plans to launch the first Orion spacecraft this Thursday, in an uncrewed test flight that is the next step on its journey towards a fully fledged mission to Mars. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is designed for deep-space missions, most particularly the asteroid redirect mission in the early 2020s and future missions to Mars. This week’s flight, predicted as 70 percent ‘Go’ under prevailing weather conditions, will feature two Earth orbits. It’s “designed to test many of the riskiest elements of leaving Earth and returning home in the spacecraft” — before NASA puts a crew of astronauts inside!
Orion is the first spacecraft designed to carry a human crew into deep space since the iconic Apollo missions. Much to the chagrin of Congress, in fact, it is not designed for near-Earth missions such as trips to the International Space Station. The craft is intended to take astronauts further into space than they have ever traveled before, so there is a lot of testing to be done to make sure it can withstand some of the extreme conditions it and its crew will face. The first crewed mission is anticipated for 2021.
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Meanwhile, this week, NASA will evaluate the craft’s “separations events”; things such as the jettisoning of the launch abort system that would whisk astronauts to safety if there was a problem on the launch pad or ascent — two scenarios that have resulted in loss of life on previous Apollo or space shuttle missions. The separation of the crew module from the service module ahead of reentry will also be tested, as will the heat shield upon reentry, where it will be subjected to temperatures around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat shield is the largest ever of its kind. Other areas to be examined include how the computer systems stand up to the radiation of the Van Allen Belt, the spacecraft’s control and guidance systems, and how well its 11 parachutes slow down the crew module from 300 mph to around 20 mph after reentry and before splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. In space, Orion will be travelling at around 20,000 mph.
Orion is scheduled to be launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at 7:05 a.m. EST on Thursday 4 December, 2014, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The window for launch is two hours 39 minutes. NASA TV launch commentary begins at 4:30 a.m. and will continue through to the craft’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of San Diego. The flight is expected to take 4.5 hours.
Images by NASA