Update 2: Looks like Mars and the asteroids can breath just a little easier. Orion’s test launch was scrubbed for today. But don’t get too comfortable Mars: we’re coming for you.
Update: Orion has had a couple of false starts, but so far NASA says they are still Go For Launch! Watch the livestream here.
Orion is NASA’s latest greatest mission. Designed for deep space, the hope is that the new crew exploration vehicle will take astronauts to Mars as early as 2030.
Before the flagship Mars mission it is hoped Orion will land us on an asteroid, and steer it into orbit around the moon. Yep. Apparently that is a real thing we want to do. It’s called the Asteroid Redirect Mission and it sounds…oh what’s that word, oh yeah, insane. But hey, until Philae landed on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko last month the whole landing on a comet idea sounded pretty insane, so who knows what these scientists are up to over there.
Before we get to asteroid redirections, getting to the Moon — let alone Mars — is going to take more than just out of this world design. It’s been a hell of a long time since a manned mission has moved beyond a low earth orbit – 42 years to be exact: Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon. And, no matter how vigorously the equipment is tested here on Earth some conditions just can’t be simulated. So, on Thursday, Orion will undergo its first trial by fire.
We really do mean fire: the new capsule is going to face temperatures of 4,000° F. These are temperatures not experienced since the Apollo Missions.
Which explains the familiarity of the “new” design. You aren’t just feeling nostalgic: the recognizable cone shape is not dissimilar to that of the Apollo capsules. The theory being it worked then, why not now? Although, you’ll be relieved to hear that this theory is not being applied to the high tech interior of the craft.
During the unmanned test flight NASA scientists intends to launch the capsule 3,600 miles into space — 15 times the altitude of the International Space Station, which maxes out at about 268 miles above us.
That altitude explains all that heat. Re-entry is going to be rough. The capsule will screech back to Earth at about 20,000 miles per hour, using atmospheric friction and a parachute to try to slow its descent to something reasonably survivable before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean.
Check out this cool NASA animation for a sneak preview:
The upcoming launch will test the crew module, service module, launch abort system, and parachutes. For longer missions, another (not yet completed) module will be fitted to the existing design. Want more details about Orion and its modules? i09’s Mika McKinnon has a great explainer.
If you want to follow along with the preparations and launch, check out NASA’s mission page.
Good luck Orion! We have our fingers crossed for you and all of your scientist friends on the eve of this historic step towards deep space exploration.