NASA’s newest spacecraft, Orion, will be launching into space for the first time this Thursday, December 4th, on a flight that will take it further than any spacecraft built to carry humans has gone in more than 40 years and through temperatures twice as hot as molten lava to put its critical systems to the test.
The Orion program is NASA’s version of a next generation launch system for missions to deep space. This Thursday’s launch however, will not carry people. Although the Orion program was nearly scrapped several times, it is NASA’s best chance for returning astronauts back to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. The Orion will be lifted into space atop of a Delta IV heavy rocket. It will reach an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles (15 times higher than the ISS) where it will pass through the Van Allen radiation belts. Orion will reenter the atmosphere and be slowed by parachutes before a gentle splashdown. The entire mission is expected to last just 4.5 hours, but the data gathered will be invaluable in planning a future manned flight in Orion to asteroids or even Mars.