For the first time since 1972, a spacecraft will fly beyond the Earth’s orbit on Thursday. NASA’s new Orion capsule sitting atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket is scheduled to blast off at 7:05 a.m. EST on Thursday from Cape Canaveral in Florida. No spacecraft has gone beyond the low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972.
The unmanned flight
NASA’s Orion capsule is designed to eventually take humans to Mars. Thursday’s unmanned test flight will be the first step in that direction. The spacecraft was developed by Lockheed Martin for NASA. The test flight will last about 4-1/2 hours. The rocket will take the capsule 3,600 miles out into space so that it could gain enough momentum to re-enter the atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 miles per hour.
One of the objectives of tomorrow’s flight is to assess how well the spacecraft’s heat shield withstands the 2,200 degrees Celsius temperature it will experience during re-entry into the atmosphere. The flight will also provide a test of the parachutes and other systems, as there are 1,200 sensors recording data. The capsule has 11 parachutes to reduce its descent to 20 mph so that it can easily splash down in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles (956 kilometers) off the coast of Baja California.
NASA’s third Orion flight will include astronauts
Orion will then be pulled from the water by a Navy ship named the Anchorage. It will transported back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for further examination. The test run is estimated to cost NASA about $375 million. According to Reuters, NASA plans to reuse the Orion capsule to test an emergency escape system to avoid an accident during liftoff.
Thursday’s test will be followed by a second Orion test capsule in four years. That will also be unmanned, but will be launched on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that is currently under development. The second test flight will take the capsule around the moon. The third flight is expected to carry astronauts. It is slated for 2021 launch. The ultimate goal of the project is to send astronauts to mars.