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Six little-known fast facts about NASA's Orion capsule
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NASA's Orion mission is an important step back towards the Moon and beyond for the United States. Despite the momentous occasion, few Americans are even aware that its first test flight is taking place. As Americans awaken to the news, here are some cool fast facts about the Orion mission and what will happen in the years to come.
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LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Orion capsule test flight is intended to test the integrity and efficiency of a variety of systems on the spacecraft. The capsule is unmanned, and will face perils not experienced by a NASA capsule in nearly 40 years.
1. The Orion capsule will fly through the Van Allen Belts. The Van Allen Belts are doughnut-shaped rings around the Earth where radiation is abundant. They are an important component of Earth's magnetic field which protects all life on Earth from intense solar radiation. Without these belts, life as we know it on Earth would be impossible because of the radiation.
However, that radiation is captured around Earth in the Van Allen belts. Orion will fly through these belts to ensure the capsule has the right stuff to protect astronauts who will also fly through the belts on their way to the Moon and beyond. If too much radiation leaks into the crew compartment, the entire design of the capsule will have to be reevaluated.
2. The Orion capsule is intended for more than moon missions. Anticipated missions for Orion include trips to the International Space Station, nearby asteroids, and even Mars.
3. The European Space Agency is providing a critical component for the capsule. The Orion capsule may be a NASA project, but that hasn't stopped engineers from outsourcing the service module component from the European Space Agency. The service module is the small portion of the Orion craft that goes behind the capsule itself. The service module provides most of the life support, fuel and power for the command module (a.k.a. capsule) during its mission.
4. The heat shield is the largest ever for a capsule and NASA is going to try and break it. The heat shield is a critical component, protecting the crew and the capsule entirely from the plasma --that is superheated air molecules, created by reentry. It was a small hole in the wing of the Space Shuttle Columbia that doomed that craft and its crew during reentry, which is one of the most dangerous parts of any mission.
Only the American and Soviet space shuttles had larger heat shields. NASA will bring Orion home at over 20,000 miles per hour, much faster than a speeding bullet. Still, even that speed is just 80 percent of what Orion will face during its manned missions from the Moon or beyond. The heat shield will have to sustain temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during reentry, which is hotter than the inside of a nuclear reactor.
NASA doesn't really want to destroy their craft, but they need to be certain that the heat shield will protect the craft without damage during the violent reentry process.
5. Orion's parachutes are the largest ones ever build for a manned spacecraft. When inflated they can almost cover an entire football field. Two of the giant parachutes are enough to slow the craft for a safe landing, but it uses three for redundancy, in case one becomes fouled or fails to deploy. The capsule has already completed several test drops from high altitude with its parachutes deliberately sabotaged to ensure the craft can still bring astronauts down safely.
6. The Orion capsule is thought to be the safest spacecraft in history. Although its safety record is yet to be established, NASA predicts the Orion is the safest capsule in history because of its advanced design and rigorous testing.
In addition to being capable of surviving a slam into the desert floor from dangerous heights, the capsule also features a powerful escape tower which can pull the crew to safety in less than one second, should anything go wrong with the rocket. The escape tower would separate the capsule from the body of an exploding rocket, accelerating the astronauts away from any explosion. They would then float to safety.
Other components of the system allow for the Orion capsule to break away from the main stage of the rocket along with other safety features all intended to save the crew from doom should an anomaly occur.
The Orion capsule is an important piece of a greater program that will return Americans to the Moon sometime over the next decade or so, and eventually to Mars in the 2030s, or at least this is the plan at present. It's development and use will return America to the forefront of space exploration and will yield benefits and technologies to the world that are yet unimagined.
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