NASA’s Friday launch of the Orion capsule is the first in-space test of the first ever spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to Mars. Marking the most ambitious project since the Apollo program that helped astronauts land on the moon, Friday’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is one of three tests before NASA makes its official attempt to send astronauts to the red planet using the Orion space capsule.
In anticipation of Orion’s Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1, NASA held several social media events around the country to raise awareness about the launch. They also revealed new information about the risks and expectations associated with the event. Here is what we learned.
NASA has ambitious plans for future deep space exploration, and to avoid relying solely on government funding, whose investment in NASA is predicated on the political whims of Congress, NASA is committed to working with private sector companies to diversify and sustain a variety of missions and to develop the components and crafts needed to complete them. Already, NASA works with SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Orbital Sciences Corp., just to name a few. According to Mark Geyer, program manager of Orion, JPL has been instrumental in helping NASA integrate all the parts of Orion, “such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.”
Harnessing resources on Mars
Maintaining a sustained colony on Mars and ensuring the supplies needed to launch a return trip to Earth requires an abundance of key resources. Fortunately, NASA is confident in its ability to develop a system of collecting hydrogen and oxygen on Mars to create the rocket fuel needed to relaunch spacecraft. The International Space Station has also been testing various methods for purifying water, growing food, and finding viable means of supporting astronauts once they arrive on the planet. All of these are important challenges that are necessary for the success of future manned missions to Mars and beyond.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission
The European Space Agency received a lot of well deserved attention for landing Philae on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Building on ESA’s success, JPL and NASA are working jointly on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which aims to “bring a small near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit, where it could be further analyzed both by unmanned craft and by a future manned mission. NASA hopes to complete the mission, which may take anywhere from six to ten years, in time to accomplish its stated goal of landing humans on an asteroid by 2025.”
Brian K. Muirhead, chief engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory at Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, provided a presentation explaining how ARM will help meet several NASA objectives. The following are some of his key highlights:
- High power solar electric propulsion (SEP) technology demonstration
- Operation in close proximity to a near-earth asteroid
- Demonstrate planetary defense techniques
- Prove out Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion capabilities beyond LEO
One bullet point, “Demonstrate planetary defense techniques,” has us particularly intrigued.
Testing for and overcoming key challenges
Friday’s Orion launch was meant for testing, and there were plenty of things that could’ve gone wrong with the launch. Mission control engineers were on the edge of their seats as they anticipated the extent to which Orion’s parachutes would function upon descent. Other issues involve the amount of radiation the capsule will endure as it reaches its highest and lowest points during its two elliptical orbits around Earth. The potential of radiation leak is harmful to humans, and too much radiation can also interfere and disrupt Orion’s onboard sensors and programming. Another key area of concern is how well Orion’s heat shield performed as it hurtled back down toward Earth from a speed of 20,000 mph (32,000 kilometers per hour) to 17 mph (27 kph). NASA and JPL were also happy to see an accurate landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California for recovery.
One final challenge concerns the issue of having four astronauts spending 3 years in a crammed space capsule while traveling to Mars. Everything from spacesuits, food, and the psychological well-being of the astronauts are important details NASA has yet to fully figure out.
Inspiring future scientists
Overall, the event was exciting, and no doubt geared toward inspiring the public about all the mind blowing technologies, missions and projects NASA is working on with its private partners. Make no mistake, NASA is back with all kinds of awesome up its sleeves.