Humanity’s first effort to send humans into deep space and to other planets in our solar system begins in just two weeks. The launch window for NASA’s newest spacecraft, Orion, opens Dec. 4.
While the world has been fixed on the Mars Rover and, more recently, a successful effort to land a robot on a comet, Orion is arguably what most of the public has been demanding for nearly a generation – a spacecraft capable of safely carrying human beings through the dangers of deep space to distant planets in our solar system.
NASA engineers built Orion to be that spacecraft. It is, by any measure, an extraordinary ship – capable of travelling to and from Earth with humans aboard, but with the ability to shield humans inside from radiation and other deep space dangers that have kept us from travelling aboard ships to other planets.
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Orion’s inaugural test mission won’t have anyone aboard. When it launches into space some time after the launch window opens in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, Orion will fly further than any spacecraft built to carry humans has gone since the Apollo missions put humans on the moon.
Orion will also fly through the radiation of the Van Allen belts – precisely the type of danger in deep space that has always discouraged NASA from sending humans on missions to Mars and other planets – and test the aircraft’s ability to withstand searing temperatures twice as hot as molten lava and protect both humans and systems inside the space capsule.
Orion was built to be flexible and versatile so that it can safely take humans beyond Earth’s low orbit, to asteroids or to planets like Mars. To achieve all of those, Orion has to withstand a variety of challenges like high speeds, searing temperatures and extreme radiation.
“Before we can send astronauts into space on Orion, we have to test all of its systems,” said NASA engineer Kelly Smith, who works on Orion’s guidance and navigation systems. “And there’s only one way to know if we got it right – fly it, in space.”
On Orion’s first flight, it will include sensors that will record every aspect of the flight, from liftoff to eventual splashdown in the ocean. Some of the data will be sent in real time to NASA mission control – its onboard computers are designed to handle 480 million instructions per second – but much of it will also be recovered from the spacecraft once it safely returns to Earth.
Orion will go through three phases and two separations. The first is 100 miles above Earth, when it separates from the Delta 4 heavy rocket and travels 17,000 miles an hour on the first lap around Earth. From there, its boosters should send Orion up to an orbit 3,600 miles above Earth. This second phase is the first critical test.
Orion’s orbit after this second separation is 15 times higher than the international space station. It will also take Orion through the two Van Allen belts in order to test the spacecraft’s ability to withstand dangerous radiation levels and make sure onboard guidance and computer systems aren’t damaged.
But, more importantly, this part of the mission will also test whether Orion can protect human beings as it travels through the radiation belts. The spacecraft is equipped with next-generation shields that are built to protect humans on the trip up and through the radiation belts – and keep astronauts from burning up on re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.
Once Orion separates from the upper launch vehicle a second time, it enters its third phase – the return through Earth’s atmosphere for an ocean landing. Plasma surrounding Orion on re-entry can reach temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, twice the temperature of molten lava. NASA scientists will be able to determine if the shields can protect humans inside the spacecraft here as well.
The specially constructed heat shield (the largest of its kind ever made) is designed to take the full brunt of the searing temperatures during re-entry, with jets around the capsule firing to keep it aligned and on course.
Since Orion is built to allow human beings to ride aboard it, the descent has to be slowed in stages. There are two layers of parachutes on the capsule to slow its descent gradually – from 20,000 miles an hour on initial re-entry to just 20 miles an hour – before safely landing in the ocean. Orion’s final, three parachutes are big enough to cover a football field.
But perhaps more importantly than the mission itself, NASA has smartly gotten the American public engaged in the inaugural flight. Orion’s first flight will have tens of thousands of virtual passengers aboard, part of a creative effort by NASA to allow students and others to actively take part in parts of the mission.
NASA has also quietly built quite a social media following for the Orion mission as well through a novel online effort in the past few weeks called “Journey to Mars.” The #JourneytoMars effort has successfully convinced nearly 1.4 million people to submit virtual boarding passes for Orion’s first flight.
NASA will need every bit of this public good will right now, with a new Republican-led Congress that has made no secret of its distaste both for federal science funding as well as ambitious national government solutions like NASA’s Orion mission.
Orion is an exciting moment for space exploration. It’s too bad it launches at such an inauspicious time, with a new Congress that questions the premise upon which the mission is built – namely, that strong national government programs are necessary to fund the science and safely test missions to send humans to planets like Mars.
Hopefully, Orion’s mission – and a new era of space exploration that it is specifically built to master – will help change some of that equation.
By Jeff Nesbit
Original Article by U.S. News & World Report
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