Liftoff: NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched into orbit3 min read

The Orion capsule launched into space on Friday morning, taking the United States on its first step in a long journey that could one day take human explorers to Mars.

The spacecraft blasted off as scheduled at 7:05 a.m. (ET), after a first attempt a day earlier was aborted due to gusty wind and sticky valves.

“The star of the day is Orion,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden, back for the second morning in a row. He called it “Day One of the Mars era.”

The Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Orion spacecraft lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 5, 2014. (STEVE NESIUS/REUTERS)

The Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Orion spacecraft lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 5, 2014.
(STEVE NESIUS/REUTERS)

WHO’S ON BOARD?

No one. A first mission with astronauts on board is at least seven years away. This test flight is all about putting Orion through its paces in the kind of setting that can’t be mimicked back on Earth.

WHAT’S HAPPENING TODAY?

The launch: Now that it’s launched, mission controllers will be monitoring the capsule’s guidance and navigation systems to make sure they operate as expected while the capsule swings around the planet a few times during its planned 4 1/2-hour sojourn.

The orbit: On its maiden flight, Orion is expected to circle Earth twice and reach a maximum altitude of about 5,800 kilometres, more than 10 times the height at which the International Space Station orbits. Along the way, its on-board electronics will have to weather passage through two radiation belts where high-energy particles are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.

The landing: Another crucial hurdle will come when Orion plunges back down through the atmosphere at 32,000 kilometres per hour and will be relying solely on its heat shield to avoid burning up during the high-speed re-entry. As a final test, the capsule’s parachutes will need to deploy at the right moment to bring it to a relatively gentle splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Baja California. The capsule will float until it is recovered by the USS Anchorage.

WHAT COULD HAPPEN NEXT?

If all goes well on Friday, the next flight will see Orion venture around the far side of the moon some time around 2017-2018 – again uncrewed. That’s still a long way from Mars, but reoccupying the lunar “proving ground” will be another essential milestone before NASA is ready to send astronauts to explore new territory among the asteroids and beyond.

WHY DOES ORION MATTER?

Orion’s maiden voyage to space is widely seen as a pivotal milestone for a program that was born out the ashes of the 2003 Columbia space-shuttle disaster and has been struggling ever since through congressional budget battles and uncertainty over the ultimate direction of the U.S. space program.

If successful, Orion could push beyond all that. It is the vehicle that will restore NASA’s ability to transport its own astronauts again, something it hasn’t been able to do since the last space shuttle touched down in 2011. But while the shuttle was a bigger, more complex system, Orion opens the door to loftier goals, including taking human explorers beyond the moon, to the asteroids and on toward space flight’s grandest prize: Mars.

“In the long term, we want to demonstrate that we are continuing on this 40-year journey to try to get humans to Mars,” NASA’s Mr. Bolden, a former astronaut, told The Globe.

With reports from Ivan Semeniuk and Associated Press

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Sebastien Clarke

Astronaut is dedicated to bringing you the latest news, reviews and information from the world of space, entertainment, sci-fi and technology. With videos, images, forums, blogs and more, get involved today & join our community!
Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

Astronaut is dedicated to bringing you the latest news, reviews and information from the world of space, entertainment, sci-fi and technology. With videos, images, forums, blogs and more, get involved today & join our community!

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