I first heard about the Orion spacecraft when I looked over my brother’s shoulder at his computer. He was on this website. Curiously, I asked him specifically what he was doing, and with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders, “I’m gonna be on Mars.”
Well, kind of.
In celebration of the spacecraft Orion’s first flight, NASA has set up an interactive website, where the public can “send their names on a microchip to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including Mars”. When Orion will be launched into space on December 4th, your name will be on a dime-sized microchip on the spacecraft.
Orion’s first slight, called ‘Exploration Flight Test-1’, is a test flight of the sort. For this flight, launching December 4th, Orion will fly a two-orbit (around Earth), four-hour flight. This will test the features needed to take astronauts deeper in space, withstanding high speeds, searing temperatures, and extreme radiation. The craft will have no astronauts, but instead be equipped with sensors throughout, to record all aspects of the flight in detail. This information will constantly be sent to a monitoring Mission Houston, who is constantly analyzing the data.
The first part of Orion’s journey is launching aboard a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, currently at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. Rockets, since they need to take off, need to generate huge amounts of thrust (to force the rocket upwards). Rockets carry lots of fuel, which slowly burns to generate heat and gas. The buildup of this gas escapes the rocket with lots of force, and produces thrust for the rocket to blast off.
Orion includes the Launch Abort System, designed as a safety feature to pull Orion (and the astronauts when they eventually board) out of danger if there was a problem with the rocket during ascent. The LAS is designed to ignite and propel the crew away from the rocket and save their lives. It would produce 500,000 pounds of thrust to get Orion away from the rocket. Since there is no crew on the first flight, this will be mostly inactive.
NASA is predicting to lose communication with Orion in certain places, such as when it flies over the Indian Ocean and when it is preparing for landing. But, Orion will still be processing data, with the computers that can handle over 480 million instructions per second.
On its second orbit, Orion goes above and beyond Earth (higher than the International Space Station, approximately 350 kilometers above Earth), and through the Van Allen Belts. The Van Allen Belts, named after discoverer Dr. James Van Allen, are areas of high radiation, caused by the large amounts of high energy charged particles, such as protons and electrons. They are trapped in these belts by the Earth’s magnetic field. These radiation belts can cause damage to Orion’s computer systems, harming the data, but Orion is equipped with shielding protection, and sensors to collect data about the radiation levels.
The winners of the Exploration Design Challenge (sponsored by NASA) played a key role in this. “The goal of the EDC competition was to build and test designs for shields to minimize radiation exposure and damaging human health effects inside.” Their team’s design received the highest radiation protection score against all other teams, and they have worked with NASA to have their shielding fit on Orion.
Upon Orion’s re-entry onto Earth, NASA predicts it will be going more than 30,000 kilometers per hour, and the craft will be enveloped in hot plasma with temperatures of more than 2,200 degrees Celsius. Orion fires jets to keep it on the target of landing, while a specially constructed heat shield protects the ship (the largest ever made). Orion has specially built parachutes to slow the landing down. This will happen in stages, as one day when crew are aboard, deceleration must be slow enough for them to be comfortable. Two drogue parachutes deploy, slowing the craft down to 281 kilometers per hour. And then, the three main parachutes deploy, slowing the craft down to 32 kilometers per hour, before splashing down. Many tests were done on these parachutes, with different combinations, such as a failure of a drogue parachute and a main parachute, or skipping a phase of the parachute unfurling.
Orion spacecraft – from NASA
If all goes well during this test mission, Orion is slated to carry astronauts above and beyond, farther than any other human has gone, from landing on an asteroid, to landing on Mars. Orion is just the first step in satisfying humanity’s desire to explore the unknown, push the boundaries of scientific discoveries, and discover new worlds.
NASA’s ‘Trial by Fire’ video about Orion: