Orion: To Mars, the Moon and beyond... but first, a TEST FLIGHT through Van Allen belt

With handy 'any-time abort' should a KERPLUNK occur

Artist's rendering of the Orion spacecraft at the Moon

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, rescued from the chop by President Barack Obama and aimed at reviving the US’s dormant manned space exploration with trips to Mars, the Moon and asteroids, will have its first test flight this week.

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The Apollo-like ship has been seen by some as nothing more than a stealthy bit of politicking – rescued from budget cuts to the space programme to keep voters in the state of Colorado, where manufacturer Lockheed Martin is based, happy and disguise the fact that NASA has all but given up on sending people into space.

But despite its somewhat inauspicious reputation and the fact that it still has a very long way to go before it can even contemplate that trip to the Red Planet, Larry Price, deputy programme manager at Lockheed, is pretty excited.

This first $370m test flight is going up unmanned and aims to “mature” around a dozen of the 15 design challenges involved in deep space exploration. The only things that won’t get tested are long distance navigation and communications, since it’s not going very far out, and how well the crew would manage (as it’s unmanned).

A lot of the buzz is around the heat shield, which should be well tested by a high-speed re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’ll be coming in at 20,000 miles an hour and the resulting temp is almost 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit – as a relative to that, molten lava from a volcano is 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – so that’s the challenge that we’re faced with,” Price told The Register.

Artist's rendering of the Orion spacecraft at the Moon

The 16.5 foot shield, which NASA boasts is the biggest and most advanced of its kind ever, is attached to the base of the capsule. To build it, NASA tested materials and then built samples for further testing in high temperature wind tunnels to figure out what would work best to protect a ten-ton spacecraft filled with fragile humans that are trying to fly back to Earth – not just drop through the atmosphere.

“The vehicle actually flies, not real well, but it has what we call a lift over drag, so we’re going to be flying it in as we enter the atmosphere,” Price explained.

Banks of instrumentation will be taking as many readings as possible to assess the heat-shield’s performance, since it’s a pretty key piece of equipment. But despite its importance, it’s not the only thing that needs testing.

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