NASA will take a huge step this week in its efforts to build the technology, rockets and spacecraft needed to send astronauts to Mars.
Orion, the first spacecraft NASA has built to carry astronauts into deep space since the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, is set to lift off on its first test flight Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Riding on top of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV heavy rocket, the spacecraft is scheduled to launch at 7:05 a.m., though that window could extend to 9:44 a.m. if needed.
As of Wednesday morning, meteorologists have given the launch a 70% chance of "go" because of a weather pattern that could bring low clouds, showers and winds too high for a safe liftoff. The weather has been improving, however, and NASA is moving ahead with its launch plans.
"Orion's flight test is designed to test many of the riskiest elements of leaving Earth and returning home in the spacecraft," NASA stated. "Testing these capabilities now will help ensure that Orion will be the next-generation spacecraft for missions in the 2020s that will put Mars within the reach of astronauts in the 2030s."
Orion's first test flight will have no crew, but the next-generation spacecraft will carry 1,200 sensors to measure conditions throughout the craft for the entire length of the mission. With no astronauts onboard, the sensors will provide NASA engineers with information on conditions inside the crew's cabin as the spacecraft travels 3,600 miles above Earth — 15 times farther than the International Space Station. On its return, the spacecraft will pass through high radiation and reach temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it enters the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 mph.
The sensors also will measure the stress on the spacecraft as it ultimately splashes down, using three parachutes, in the Pacific Ocean about 4.5 hours after launch.
"We are ready," said Mike Sarafin, lead flight director for the test flight mission. "It's just a great time to be here. We haven't had this feeling in a while — not since retiring the space shuttles — of launching a spacecraft from American soil."
Sarafin, speaking during a press conference Wednesday, said Orion should reach its first orbit 17 minutes after liftoff. During that first trip around the Earth, the spacecraft will be flying at about the same orbital level as the International Space Station.
Two hours into the mission, the rocket's second stage engine will ignite, pushing Orion into a higher orbit, where it will twice pass through the Van Allen Belts, an area of dangerous radiation. Orion's sensors will measure the effects of radiation on the spacecraft's computers and navigation systems, as well as the environment in the crew compartment.
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