News from Space: Orion Spacecraft Completed

orion_arrays1NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.

Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-KremerThe unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.

The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-Kremer1As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:

Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.

In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.

oriontestflightThe two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.

And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:


Sources:
gizmag.com, universetoday.com

News From Space: Asteroids in the Bag!

asteroid_earthFor some time, NASA has been forthright about its plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth for the sake of study. As part of their long-term goals, this plan calls for the capture of a Near Earth Object (NEO) and positioning it at one of two Lagrange Points before conducting research on it. And late last month, they released plans on how they intend to go about doing this.

The first step, picking and choosing a potential target, would be handled by the telescope known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Launched in 2009, this telescope was charged with a two-year mission to image 99% of the visible sky in infrared wavelengths. Once this mission was successfully completed, NASA reassigned the craft a second four-month mission to track and discover near-Earth objects (NEOs).

orion_asteroidOnce that’s done, the next phase of the mission will involve launching an unmanned probe to intercept the NEO and drag it back into a retrievable position, probably by wrapping a bag around it. While this might sound improbable, keep in mind NEOs are rather small, and a bag of high-tensile material would do the trick. A crew would then be dispatched on an Orion capsule mated to the upcoming heavy rocket known as the Space Launch System to retrieve samples of the asteroid and return them to Earth.

Despite troubles getting the US Congress to approve a budget necessary to mount a capture mission, NASA remains committed to the plan, mainly because of the benefits it would entail. Many of these small asteroids are thought to contain minerals from the very early stages of the solar system’s formation, which means they’d be a useful means of investigating theories on how planets and planetoids form.

orion_captureIn addition, studying NEOs is also essential in creating safeguards against them striking Earth. The Russian meteorite explosion earlier this year put a new emphasis on the importance of tracking small asteroids, as the object that detonated in the skies above Chelyabinsk was too small to have been detected by other means. Much like many small asteroids, NEOs are too small to reflect visible light and must be tracked by infrared imaging.

Ultimately, bagging and dragging one of the smaller ones may be the only way to successfully study them and find ways to divert the larger ones. And a mission of this nature would stretch NASA’s unmanned capabilities for probes and satellites — a useful factor when discussing exploration of targets like Europa or Titan. It would also serve as a test of the Orion capsule and SLS, which are the intended means of getting astronauts to Mars by 2030.

asteroid_neo_studyNASA’s news release included a series of photos and a video animation of how the capture operation would take place, which included crew operations, the Orion spacecraft’s trip to and rendezvous with the relocated asteroid, as well as astronauts maneuvering through a spacewalk to collect samples from the asteroid.

NASA will also be hosting a technical workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston from Sept. 20th to Oct. 2nd to discuss potential ideas, and is looking for public input. Virtual participation will also be available to the public, and details on how to participate will become available soon. Stay tuned for updates, or check in with Universe Today, who is following the story.

And be sure to check out NASA’s video on what the NEO capture would look like. And check out more of pictures at NASA’s Asteroid Initiative website.


Sources:
extremetech.com
, universetoday.com, nasa.gov