When NASA launches its brand-new Orion spacecraft later this year, it is also launching what it hopes will be a new era of human spaceflight. It will be a test flight, but the ultimate goal of the Orion project is to send humans further into space than the moon for the first time ever.
The test flight is scheduled for December. NASA will launch Orion from Florida. From there, it will orbit the Earth twice before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Although the point of Orion is to carry astronauts into space, this test will be unmanned. Scientists and engineers want to see how the spacecraft performs, especially Orion’s life support systems and the systems that connect Orion to the rocket.
Think of future space launches as having two main parts. Orion is the module that will carry astronauts. Once the astronauts have completed their mission, Orion also has the capacity to safely reenter the atmosphere. The Space Launch System, or SLS, is the system of rockets that will lift it into space. The SLS is still being developed. For the December test, Orion will be launched using a type of rocket that already exists.
The goal of the Orion program is to first capture an asteroid that has been towed into lunar orbit, and eventually take humans to Mars, which NASA projects may happen by 2025.
Orion is a revival of the United States’ largely dormant space program that should see humanity go further than it ever has. So you can bet that when Orion takes off in December, all eyes will be on it.
What’s in a Name?
Orion is one of the most famous constellations in the night sky. In the epic Greek adventure by Homer, The Odyssey, Orion was a hunter who, upon his death, was made into a constellation.
- Orion’s first test flight will take it 3600 miles above the Earth, 15 times the distance of the International Space Station.
- Orion’s test flight will use the Delta IV Heavy, but when Orion is actually used to transport humans, it will change to the more powerful Space Launch System.
- When Orion reenters the atmosphere, it will be moving at over 20,000 miles per hour, which will cause the exterior of the spacecraft to heat up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.