Nasa poised for Orion's first step to Mars

2014-12-04 12:22
Nasa's first Orion deep space exploration craft sits on its launch pad as it is prepared for a 07:05 launch on 4 December 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (AFP)

Nasa's first Orion deep space exploration craft sits on its launch pad as it is prepared for a 07:05 launch on 4 December 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (AFP)

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Cape Canaveral - The Orion spacecraft, designed to carry humans farther in deep space than ever before, is poised to blast off on Thursday in what Nasa hailed as a first step in mankind's journey to Mars.

No astronauts will be on board the capsule when it launches aboard the US’ largest rocket, the Delta IV Heavy made by United Launch Alliance, but engineers will be keenly watching to see how it performs during the four-and-a-half hour flight.

The launch marks the first of a US spacecraft meant to carry people into deep space since the Apollo missions that brought men to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

With no American vehicle to send humans to space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, some at Nasa said the Orion launch has re-energised the US space programme.

The programme has long been constrained by government belt-tightening and forced to rely on costly rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit.

Beginning something new

"We haven't had this feeling in a while, since the end of the shuttle program, [of] launching an American spacecraft from America's soil and beginning something new," said Mike Sarafin, lead flight director at Nasa's Johnson space center in Houston.

"While the feeling is familiar and the anticipation of flight is familiar, it is a new mission and there some things that I am sure we are going to learn tomorrow from this unmanned flight test that will enable us to fly humans into deep space."

Potential future missions for Orion, which is designed to fit four people at a time, include a trip to lasso an asteroid and a journey to Mars by the 2030s.

"Thursday is the beginning of that journey, testing key systems - the riskiest systems I would say for Orion, before we have any people on board," said Mark Geyer, program manager for Orion.

"This is the beginning of exploration," he added.

Launch from Cape Canaveral

The launch at 07:05 local time from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aims to propel 739 000kg of spacecraft, rocket and fuel straight to space, where the capsule will make two laps around the Earth before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

The first orbit will be about as high as the International Space Station, which circles at an altitude of about 430km, but the second will soar 15 times higher, to an apogee of 5 800km above the Earth.

The chief contractor of the Orion capsule is Lockheed Martin. The spacecraft was first designed to take humans to the moon as part of Nasa's Constellation program, which was cancelled by President Barack Obama in 2010, in favor or seeking new destinations in deep space.

The goal is both nebulous and costly, and Nasa has already spent billions of dollars on Orion and the powerful rocket meant to propel it with crew on board, the Space Launch System (SLS).

The first Orion test flight with people on board is scheduled for 2021, but with costs projected to reach $19-22bn, space analyst Marco Caceres of the Teal Group in Virginia said it could be longer.

"Assuming Congress or one of the next two presidents do not cancel SLS because of its inevitably ballooning costs, it's more likely that the first SLS/Orion manned mission will occur closer to the middle part of the next decade," Caceres said.

Safety first

As Nasa looks beyond the moon, safety for human explorers is another key problem that has yet to be solved.

"Radiation is one of the biggest challenges for us," Nasa administrator Charles Bolden told an audience of Nasa enthusiasts gathered at Kennedy space center for a social media event.

The primary objective of Thursday's test, according to Geyer, is to see how the heat shield performs as it reaches temperatures of 2 200°C on its high-speed plunge back to Earth at a velocity of 32 000km/h.

"A part of me hopes that everything is perfect. We land, have high-fives and everybody has a great time," Geyer told reporters.

But he added that the test is designed to find things that go wrong before precious lives are on board.

"We want to discover things that are beyond our modeling capability and beyond our expertise so we can learn it and fix it before we put people on board."

Weather for Thursday's launch was expected to be 70% favorable, with some risk of winds and rain, but Nasa said the two-hour, 39-minute launch window gives the team plenty of flexibility to accomplish the launch during the daylight hours.

Read more on:    nasa  |  us  |  space

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