Cape Canaveral, Florida: A NASA spacecraft designed to one day fly astronauts to Mars has made a near-bullseye splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, wrapping up a flawless, unmanned debut test flight around Earth.
The uncrewed Orion capsule blasted off aboard a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, the biggest in the fleet, just after dawn on Friday (about 2am on Saturday AEDT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Three hours later, it reached peak altitude of 5800 kilometres above the planet, a prelude to the most challenging part of the flight, a 32,000 km/h dive back into the atmosphere.
Orion survived a searing plunge through the atmosphere, heating up to 2200 degree Celsius – twice as hot as molten lava – and experiencing gravitational forces eight times stronger than Earth’s.
Over the next few minutes, a total of 11 parachutes deployed to slow Orion’s descent, including three gigantic main chutes that guided the spaceship to a 32 km/h splash-down 1014 kilometres south-west of San Diego, California, at 11.29 am local time (3.29am Saturday AEDT).
“I think it’s a big day for the world, for people who know and like space,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said before the launch, calling the Orion “our prima ballerina”.
Moments after lift-off, NASA spokesman Mike Currie said it marked “the dawn of Orion and the new era of American space exploration.”
The point of the test flight, which cost NASA about $US375 million ($A449.7 million), was to verify that Orion’s 5-metre diameter heat shield, parachutes, avionics and other equipment would work as designed prior to astronauts flying on-board.
NASA has been developing Orion, along with a new heavy-lift rocket, for more than eight years. The design of the rocket has changed, and Orion survived the cancellation of a lunar exploration program called Constellation to become the centrepiece of a new human space initiative intended to one day fly astronauts to Mars.
NASA has spent more than $US9 billion developing the Lockheed Martin-built Orion, which will make a second test flight, also without crew, in about four years.
A third mission, expected about 2021, will include two astronauts on a flight that will send the capsule high around the moon.
Sometime in the 2020s, NASA plans to capture an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft, then drag it to the moon’s orbit where it would connect with the Orion. Astronauts would then be able to take samples from the asteroid.
“Just the idea of having a human around the moon interacting with an asteroid – that’s mind boggling,” Bolden said. “We are very confident we can do this.”
The big target, however, remains Mars, which NASA says astronauts could reach sometime in the 2030s.
Since the end of the Apollo moon program in 1972, astronauts have flown only a few hundred kilometres above Earth.
Orion’s debut flight originally had been slated for Thursday but gusty winds and a problem with the rocket, built and flown by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed and Boeing, delayed the launch by one day.
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