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NASA Set to Take the Orion Space Capsule — Which Could Eventually Take Humans to Mars — Out For a Spin

2 Dec 2014, 3:35 pm

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It’s been three years since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. Since then, the U.S. has been relying on Russia to fly American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

But on Dec. 4, 2014, NASA takes a big step toward getting its storied space program back on track.

How are they going to do it?

By launching a Delta IV Heavy rocket with the “Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” attached. “The Orion Flight Test will evaluate launch and high speed re-entry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield,” NASA said in a statement.

What is Orion? Well, it’s a space capsule that many hope will eventually send humans into Deep Space. The goal is to send humans to Deep Space in the 2020s.

The rocket carrying Orion is scheduled to blast-off from Kennedy Space Center — in Cape Canaveral, Fla. — at 7:05 a.m. EST, on Thursday. That is, if the weather cooperates. And at this point, during the 2-hour and 39-minute launch window, it looks like Mother Nature won’t be too much of a concern around the time of the launch.

Once ignited, the Delta IV Heavy rocket — the strongest in America’s inventory of rockets — will use more than 2 million pounds of thrust to propel Orion into space.

After the launch and reaching a prescribed orbit, the unmanned Orion capsule will orbit the Earth twice; during that time, it will preform a series of tests on the capsule. These tests will likely give NASA engineers valuable insight into the spacecraft’s design.

Three hours after the launch, Orion will separate from the second stage of the Delta IV Heavy rocket. NASA explains what happens next, “The spacecraft will be aimed at Earth’s atmosphere and it will be up to Orion’s onboard computers to set the spacecraft in the right position so its base heat shield can bear the brunt of the intense reentry heat.”

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The capsule will hit the atmosphere at more than 20,000-mph and will be subjected to temperatures nearing 4,000 degrees. For a bit of perspective, steel melts at just over 2,000 degrees and basalt lava peaks between 1,800 and 2,300 degrees.

Orion should splash down in the Pacific Ocean — just off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula — about four and a half hours after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. “Teams from NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program based at Kennedy will work with U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin personnel to bring the spacecraft into the well deck of the USS Anchorage,” NASA says.

WeatherNation will have a reporter covering the launch from Kennedy Space Center and we’ll be bringing you special coverage on-air and online throughout the day on Thursday. If there are any changes in launch times we’ll bring you updates as they become available.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

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