While some Mars missions offer no hope of return, astronauts taking part in NASA’s Orion mission (scheduled for as early as 2030) are in for an amazing view on their return to Earth.
Orion will be the first spacecraft since the Apollo missions to usher a crew of astronauts out of our atmosphere and into deep space.
The capsule was successfully launched and recovered earlier this month, on Dec. 5.
And NASA just released some amazing footage taken from inside the capsule during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, a very dangerous part of the mission.
Here, you can see the brilliant, blue outline of Earth on first approach — which we expect to be a joyous sight for astronauts, after having just spent months in the confines of a small spaceship and hundreds of millions of miles from home.
Re-entering Earth isn’t easy.
Travelling at about 20,000 miles per hour, the Orion spacecraft hits the atmosphere, colliding with the atoms of gas in the thin upper atmosphere.
During the collision, the craft and gas atoms rub against one another, which produces heat. Once it gets hot enough, the gas turns into a special state of matter, called plasma, which is seen here as the glowing jellyfish-shaped light out the window:
As the spacecraft plummets to the surface, it collides with even more gas molecules as it enters denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere, growing increasingly hot. Consequently, the plasma changes colours: from white, to yellow, then lavender and eventually magenta, as shown below.
Ultimately, the spacecraft reaches a temperature of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit — 6.5 times hotter than what it takes to melt lead and almost twice as hot as molten lava. The light from the hot air around the spacecraft drowns out the astronauts’ beautiful view of Earth, and all you see is the bright, magenta-tinted plasma. Generating this multi-colour plasma is common for re-entry vehicles.
At the height of the heat, NASA loses communication with Orion because data can’t penetrate the plasma, explains NASA engineer Kelly Smith in the video Orion: Trial By Fire.
This blackout makes it difficult for NASA to know what is happening inside of the spacecraft. At least in this test, the video gives a good idea of exactly what Orion experienced on its way down to Earth.
Here’s an animation of what the spacecraft looks like from the outside at this point:
During re-entry, jets navigate the spacecraft to make sure Orion’s broad heat shield is getting the brunt of the heat. It’s the largest heat shield ever constructed for a spacecraft and has a diameter of about 16.5 feet.
It’s especially built to withstand this heat, because of the material that covers it, called Avocat. The Avocat coating burns away, keeping the crew module cool. If the craft comes in at the wrong angle, and heat hits other parts of the module, it can heat up or break apart, which is why the navigating jets are so important.
“The heat shield worked extremely well and did its job,” Jules Schneider, Lockheed Martin Program manager for Orion, told Universe Today.
Re-entering Earth’s atmosphere reduces Orion’s speed. In just three minutes, the spacecraft slows from 20,000 miles per hour to 300 miles per hour. It’s at this point that Orion fires its jets to position it into an upright position for landing, as shown in the footage below:
It’s mostly smooth sailing from this point on in the test video. The spacecraft descends, using its jets to keep it upright, and steer it into the Pacific Ocean.
With five minutes of descent left, the spacecraft deploys its first set of parachutes, which reduce its speed to about 20 miles per hour.
And less than two minutes later, the spacecraft detaches the smaller set of parachutes for a larger set of three, main parachutes. These three parachutes are large enough that, when combined, could cover an entire football field:
Deploying two sets of parachutes is important for future Orion passengers. It ensures a slow reduction in speed, giving the crew a comfortable ride and enabling them to take control if something goes wrong.
During the test drive, Orion splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 am EST on Dec. 5, after traversing 66,000 miles of space and surviving the dangerous, intense re-entry phase. But it’s only the first step.
NASA has already begun work on a second Orion capsule that, when launched by 2020, will orbit the moon before returning home to Earth.
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