NASA’s Orion spacecraft — launched earlier Friday morning on its maiden voyage into space — has come back to Earth, splashing down about 600 miles west of Baja California in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m. EST.
NASA Mission Control is calling the successful landing a “Bulls eye splash down”. Its brief visit in space took Orion 3600 miles above Earth’s surface, higher than any spacecraft designed for human passengers has been in 42 years since the Apollo 17 mission. And here’s what future astronauts will see while on board:
After spending over 4 hours in space, Orion successfully splashed down going at a speed of about 20 miles per hour. Cushioning its landing were three main parachutes that, when combined, are big enough to nearly cover an entire football field. Here’s an image, taken from some footage recorded by a nearby, piloted aircraft, of the spacecraft parachuting toward the ocean below:
Although this launch carried no passengers, NASA’s ultimate aim is for Orion to shepherd 4 astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.
The goal to boldly go further than ever before is both ambitious and dangerous, which is why NASA is taking careful precautions in going forward.
Today’s launch was a significant step forward in the right direction. After lift off aboard the largest US rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, Orion orbited Earth two times: once at 270 miles above Earth’s surface and once at 3,600 miles — higher than space craft has been since the Apollo 17 mission.
The second orbit — 15 times higher than the ISS — took the spacecraft through the intense radiation of the lower Van Allen Belt.
“Radiation is one of the biggest challenges for us,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said during a social media event this week at Kennedy Space Center.
Mission Control reported that the spacecraft’s technology survived the radiation, and the GPS navigation system was actually working better than expected at such a far distance from Earth.
Furthermore, today’s launch was an important test for Orion’s heat shield, which protects the spacecraft from burning up during re-entry.
The heat shield is the largest of its kind ever built and has a fibreglass, honcomb-shaped structure that is designed to burn away heat.
After entering Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield reached temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it plunged toward the surface at nearly 20,000 miles per hour.
Scientists suspect that about 20% of the heat shield burned up upon re-entry. Further analysis in the coming hours will tell if it fully protected the instruments inside from overheating.
Mark Geyer, program manager for Orion, hopes everything goes well, but on the other hand, if something is going to go wrong, this is the time for it to happen.
“We want to discover things that are beyond our modelling capability and beyond our expertise so we can learn it and fix it before we put people on board,” Geyer told AFP.
Orion is the first American vehicle since the space shuttle program designed to launch astronauts into space from American soil.
“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water.
Watch the video below:
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