Orion Test Flight Set to Launch

Orion's planned return to Earth

NASA is preparing for Orion’s test flight on December 4 2014, launched on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, ahead of the future Journey to Mars.

Orion is designed to go further into space than humans have ever traveled – it was built specifically for deep space travel by astronauts. Although the test flight will be unmanned, it is hoped that a crew will board Orion in 2021 to explore an asteroid. On December 4, sensors on the spacecraft will record and measure every aspect of the flight in detail.

Initially, Orion will complete one orbit of Earth before climbing to more than 3,600 miles above our planet. The test flight will examine conditions and test capabilities for future human exploration needs on Mars. It will test the riskiest elements of leaving and returning home in the spacecraft, including carrying astronauts to safety if there were to be a problem on the launch pad or during the ascent to space. The heat shield will also be tested to make sure it can cope with the high speed return to Earth from deep space, and if the on-board computers can handle the dangerous radiation environment known as the Van Allen Belts. It will experience temperatures of around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The landing to Earth will be tested with 11 parachutes on board. These will slow the landing down to 20 miles per hour. An 18,000-pound replica of Orion was dropped many times into the Hydro Impact Basin at NASA’s Langley Research Center, giving engineers the chance to understand what might happen when the spacecraft lands in the Pacific Ocean. The 4.5 hour test flight will land in the Ocean, 600 miles from San Diego, and will be collected by U.S. Navy ships.