Orion: NASA’s most ambitious project yet

By Indraneel Ghosh

With President Trump pushing for a manned mission to the moon, NASA has hastened work on one of its most ambitious space projects to date. NASA seeks to further expand the reach of man-made satellites to farther celestial bodies in deep space like asteroids and the planet Mars with their new Orion Space Shuttle. The Orion Space Capsule aims to push beyond the boundaries that have been achieved by mankind so far. To carry it into space, NASA is developing a huge rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS would function as a heavy-lift launch vehicle which would carry the Orion Space Capsule deep into space.

Orion’s Design

The Orion Space Capsule consists of three major parts. The upper part is the Launch Abort System (LAS). The LAS looks like a tower on the top. The middle part is meant for housing the satellites that go into space. It is an improvement over Apollo. Instead of a three-member crew as in Apollo, the Orion would have a capacity of around six astronauts. For landing, they have updated parachutes to provide a safer water landing. In case of an emergency during the launch or climb to the orbit, the LAS would be activated in milliseconds. Beneath the crew module, there is a service module. The service module carries the power and propulsion systems. On the service module, there would be an array of solar panels which would use sun’s energy to produce electricity. This power would help the space capsule to remain in the orbits for several months.

To launch the Space Capsule, NASA is developing a huge rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS. This rocket is a heavy-lift launch vehicle. Orion will launch on top of this rocket. The heavy-lift launch vehicle will carry Orion beyond the low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station orbits, and far past the moon.

Critics have criticized the use of LAS. They feel that it is an unnecessary expenditure. But, if it can function the way the scientists expect it to, it would be more efficient than any of the other competitors that are in use today.

For ensuring a smooth landing, the scientists at NASA have been working on a parachute design that could be used to ease the landing of the shuttle and increase the safety of the process. For further assistance during the water landing, there would be Navy divers who are responsible for extracting the astronauts to safety. Furthermore, as the satellite would enter into the earth’s atmosphere, it would be subjected to a sudden, massive air friction. To ensure that the rockets do not burn down, the Orion is designed with a heat shield that allows the spacecraft to withstand up to 5000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The progress so far

NASA has been running a battery of tests on the models that are being designed for the new and improved space shuttle. So far, they have successfully managed to send one operational Orion capsule into space. It was unmanned. They are currently preparing an improved Orion capsule to further expand their range. Another unmanned exploration mission is scheduled to take-off in 2019.

It would take some years for NASA to figure out the optimal arrangements to send a manned mission to the deeper regions of space like Mars and beyond. If it is on schedule, it is expected to be the first manned mission beyond the Earth’s lower orbits in over 50 years. Furthermore, like all space exploration projects, there is a safety concern with the process. One small mistake may cost them the lives of some smart precious people. To ensure that no such tragedy occurs, NASA has been running intensive step-wise simulations of the mission to ensure that nothing goes wrong on the D-Day.

The reason that this mission would take so much time is that scientists at NASA seek to venture beyond what has been achieved so far. To achieve this, the machinery used should be light-weight and extremely efficient. Further, it should be able to withstand the challenging environment of space and allow the astronauts to inhabit it during this long mission. Every stage of the designed spacecraft would be made to undergo a rigorous testing process before it is cleared for the final mission.

The 2019 Space Mission

If all the tests conducted give positive results, NASA plans to assemble the real Orion’s components at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the end of this year. It would then be shipped to the Plum Brook Facility in Ohio for a final round of testing. Here, they would simulate the vacuum and frigid temperatures of space. If the space capsule passes these tests, it would be sent back to Florida for preparations for a launch. The 2019 mission, termed as Exploration Mission-1, would last for around three days. During this, Orion will make a large orbit around the moon. The spacecraft would go farther into space than any man has ever gone during this trip.

Plans post 2019

After the 2019 exploration mission, they are planning another mission. In the next mission, Exploratory Mission-2, NASA plans to take things one step further. They would be testing for a spacecraft travelling around the same path, but this time with people on it. Post these exploratory missions, NASA is set to work on several other problems which would finally culminate in a manned mission to space. They expect to further develop a satellite system to travel even beyond the moon, to the planet Mars and the asteroids. The explorations of the Orion Space Shuttle are expected to culminate with a manned mission along a similar trajectory.

Though at present, these aspirations may seem lofty, NASA is confident that it can achieve its targets within the projected time frames. If they are successful, they would set a new benchmark in space exploration projects. These missions may help us discover something remarkable about these celestial bodies. We may find some earlier unknown evidence of life on Mars that have been predicted in recent times or learn more about the behaviour of asteroids.

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