The folks at NASA are getting ready to test a new spacecraft that could eventually take us to Mars — but first we have to make sure this thing is ready for manned spaceflight.
The Orion spacecraft has been in development for a few years, and now NASA is finally ready to ramp up some test flights. On Dec. 4, NASA is planning to launch the Orion craft on its first unmanned test flight. The plan is to blast the craft into space, test out all the systems, then bring it back to Earth to see how it all worked.
Dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), the mission will take the craft through two orbits of Earth, with one of them taking the capsule 3,600 miles into space. As Space notes, that’s further out than the International Space Station’s orbit at about 248 miles above Earth. Not exactly "to Mars" levels of testing, but still further out than we might commonly go these days.
NASA’s deputy associate administrator for explorations systems development William Hill noted that the test flight is the “first step” on the space agency’s journey to Mars. They’ll be testing out all the key systems, the craft’s rocket engine, radiation sensors, the heat shield and computers.
Here’s what Orion program manager Mark Geyer had to say about the testing process:
“We do have radiation sensors on board, for example, so we're actually measuring different parts of the vehicle for what we're seeing, what the environment is inside. We have 1,200 sensors, and a lot of those are loads, so they measure the impact loads when we land [and during] ascent. We'll get acoustic data inside and out, so we know how loud it is — those kinds of things. A lot of that is for the vehicle, but it's also to understand what the environment for the crew is going to be.”
Assuming the test flight goes well, officials plan to splash the craft down in the Pacific Ocean, retrieve it and reuse it again for another test.