Friday, December 5, 2014

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Completes First Test Flight

NASA's next generation crew vehicle Orion, designed to take astronauts to deep space destinations such as the Moon, an asteroid and Mars, has completed its first test flight around the Earth.

Atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Orion lifted off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:05 p.m. GMT. This uncrewed mission, designated Evaluation Flight Test-1(EFT-1) tested systems critical to future crew safety, also marks the first time that a spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone beyond the bounds of low-Earth orbit and into deep space since the days of Apollo.

Less than eighteen minutes of powered flight, Orion reached its initial orbit. After completing one revolution around the Earth, the second stage of the Delta IV fired its engines once again for a 4-minute, 45-second engine burn to raise Orion to a higher orbit, now 5,800 kilometers above the Earth(15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station).

Passing through the Van Allen Radiation Belts, data recorders on board measured the radiation levels being received by the spacecraft in order to analyse the doses of radiation astronauts would receive on future missions on Orion to deep space. Two cameras on board were also in a position to capture images of Earth from 5,800 kilometres above the planet.

Trial by Fire
Nearly three and a half hours after launch, Orion separated from its Service Module and the Delta IV Heavy, then fired its thrusters to set it on course for a fiery re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere. Traveling at around 32.000kmh during re-entry, Orion's heat shield experienced temperatures of 4000 Degrees Celsius, 80% of the temperature that would be experienced on a return journey from the Moon, as it made its journey home.

Stunning views of Earth from Orion cameras. credit: NASA TV
During this time there was an expected 2.5 minute loss of communications(LOS) between Orion and Mission Control teams in Houston, who were led today by Flight Director Mike Sarafin, as superheated plasma formed around the vehicle itself, blocking signals both in and out.

Finally, over 4.5 hours after launch in Florida, with its three parachutes fully deployed, Orion, now traveling at less than 30kmh, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, around 270 miles off the coast of Baja, California at 4:29 p.m.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden later said in a statement:
“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars.. The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

Members of the US Navy aboard the USS Anchorage were in the vicinity of the landing zone to recover the Orion spacecraft. Once the vehicle was made safe, cables were attached by divers and Orion was towed into the flooded deck of the ship. Once secure, the vessel began the journey home to port in San Diego.

What Happens Next?
Once data from today's flight has been analysed the focus for the NASA teams working on Orion systems will turn to the next flight of Orion. Mission EM-1 will involve another test flight of the Orion Crew Module, this time attached to a Service Module designed by the European Space Agency. This mission will fly beyond the Moon in 2017. The first crewed flight of Orion to the Moon is expected for 2021.

Orion will be used to carry astronauts to an asteroid that will be placed in a stable lunar orbit in the 2020s as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Designed to carry four people to deep space, Orion will facilitate the exploration of other bodies in our solar system for the first time in over forty years.

On a sidenote..
Orion was originally scheduled to lift off from the Cape at 12:05 p.m. GMT on Thursday December 4, but a fault in one of the Delta IV's valves meant launch had could not take place inside the specified launch window, resulting in the scrubbing of the launch by 24-hours.

Also, legendary former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, who led teams in Mission Control on numerous Apollo flights to the Moon, was a special VIP guest in the Mission Control Center in Houston this week. Kranz was one of the Flight Directors on Apollo 17, a mission which marked the last time humans have traveled to and returned from deep space.

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