Orion test flight due for launch

NASA's new crewed module will undergo its first in orbit test later this week


Orion has been designed to be adaptable and can be modified for any crewed space mission.

Credit: NASA/Tony Landis

This week will see NASA take its first step into a new age of space exploration as the Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV) undergoes its maiden test flight. The craft’s launch, scheduled for Thursday 4 December 2014, will test the module’s capabilities and reach a maximum altitude of 5,800km.

Orion will become a multipurpose manned space vehicle that can be used to carry crews of up to six people to the International Space Station (ISS), asteroids and perhaps even further.

This first flight will test over half of the final module’s vital systems and ensure it can withstand the rigours of launch and re-entry. The flight will last around four and a half hours, over which time the craft will reach an altitude 15 times greater than the the orboit of the ISS.

By the time the spacecraft reaches Earth’s atmosphere it will be travelling at over 32,000km per hour, enduring temperatures of over 2,200ºC, around 80 per cent of what it would have to withstand on a return trip from the Moon. To survive re-entry, Orion is host to the largest, most advanced heat shield ever created, measuring 5m in diameter and 4cm thick.

Other systems, such as the parachutes, steering engines and abort system will also be tested. If the first flight is successful then the second test will examine life support systems on a seven-day orbit around the Moon, with the hope of sending the first manned mission by 2021.

Once Orion is verified for human travel, NASA will use it to extend manned space travel outside of low-Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo missions. The module can support a crew of four for at least 21 days, though under very cramped conditions. Luckily Orion is designed to be modular, meaning that additional habitation or science modules could be added on to give future astronauts a more comfortable ride.

The future of NASA’s crewed missions is uncertain. Though support for the ISS will continue until at least 2020 and there are plans to send crews to asteroids, there is still debate about whether the agency should return to the Moon or head onward to Mars. But wherever NASA decides to go next it will be the Orion spacecraft taking its astronauts there.


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