Watch Out Mars, Here We Come

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The spacecraft it is hoped that will take man to Mars has passed its first parachute tests with flying colors.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has been designed to take astronauts to an asteroid, sometime in 2018, before hopping forward on the journey to Mars. The prototype of the spacecraft has been undergoing repeated and prolonged assessment to see how it handles the extremes of deeper space, high velocity and the aerodynamic pressures involved from travelling through the interstellar medium. Of course, these tests also have also helped to confirm the reliability of mission safety and the systems crews will have to rely on in the future. Therefore, every aspect of system functions has to be examined to ensure optimum performance.

Even parachutes? For a mission to Mars? – Oh yes.

orion-capsule-parachute[1] - Copy The parachutes that slow Orion to a safe landing speed are located under the cover, so the cover must be jettisoned before they can be unfurled. Engineers also rigged one of the main parachutes to skip the second stage of a three-phase process of unfurling each parachute, called reefing. This tested whether one of the main parachutes could go directly from opening a little to being fully open without an intermediary step, proving the system can tolerate potential failures.

As strange as it might sound, the entire process of exploration is closely linked.

For example, the forward parachutes deploy by pulling away the spacecraft’s forward bay cover. If they don’t function properly, it may cripple other systems, vital to mission success.

Thankfully, it looks like the latest assessments are the last time the entire parachute sequence will be tested before Orion launches into space in December on its first space flight test, EFT-1.

During that flight, an unmanned Orion will travel 3,600 miles into space, farther than any spacecraft built to carry humans has been in more than 40 years. She will travel at speeds necessary to check many of the systems critical to NASA’s ability to bring astronauts home safely from missions to deep space, including an asteroid landing, and of course, eventually Mars.

Exciting times. Engineers recently began stacking the crew compartment on top of the existing service module. This will form the first step in moving the three primary Orion elements –crew module, service module and launch abort system – into the correct configuration for launch.

“Now that we’re getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program manager. “Orion’s flight test will provide us with important data that will help us test out systems and further refine the design so we can safely send humans far into the solar system to uncover new scientific discoveries on future missions.”

>Orion’s flight test will also furnish important data for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and seaborne recovery of the module.

sls_referenceconfig01-lg[1] - Copy

To assist them, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, have built an advanced adapter to connect Orion to the Delta IV Heavy rocket that will launch the ship during the December test. The adapter also will be used during future SLS missions. NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, based at Kennedy, will then recover the Orion crew module with the U.S. Navy after its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

This is great news for future Mars landings. Why?
Well, the path to reaching the red planet is rather complex. What takes place in December will showcase some of the technologies that will eventually help people get there. It will also help astronauts and specialist assess what cooperation will be required form other venues, such as the International Space Station (ISS), which will be used to test the various technologies for long-term space travel, and also measure the psychological and biological strains that will be felt by astronauts.

One suggestion is that NASA could follow the International Space Station program, with a series of lunar missions. Such undertakings might entail the building of an outpost on the Moon, from which the step out to Mars could be better accomplished.

That approach is expanded upon by a second option. Think little steps. Lots of them.

A moon-based option would allow for missions to an orbit beyond the moon. From there, the next phase would logically focus on asteroids in their native orbit. After that, perhaps the moons of Mars, Martian orbit, and eventually, the Red Planet itself.

Isn’t that a lot of skipping about though?

ell, yes it is. However, it poses the least technological risk because of the milestones we will face by stretching ourselves beyond current boundaries along the way. And obviously, as we take further strides, we better prepare ourselves for greater feats.

inally, we come to a very popular third option. Nasa’s currently plans to robotically capture an asteroid, redirect it into a high orbit around the moon, and then send astronauts there to explore. Once scientists are familiar with the process, a report suggests the path would continue with missions to the moons of Mars, then on to Martian orbit, and finally to the surface of the planet.

orion_spacecraft_asteroid_002[1]

Whatever the option finally decided upon, it’s clear we’re living in astonishing times.

WHY?

Because, when you think about it, future explorers to new worlds are living amongst us now. And that’s an Amazing Story if ever there was one.

Until the next time,

Have a great day.

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