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7/19/2014
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NASA's Orion Spacecraft: 9 Facts

The Orion spacecraft gives NASA a ticket to deep space. Here's how NASA is preparing the spacecraft for a mission to visit an asteroid in 2025.
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NASA has big plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025. The mission, however, will not be possible without several important components that include yet-to-be-developed technologies, as well as the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft to fly astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. In fact, Orion's first flight test later this year will provide NASA with vital data that will be used to design future missions.

Orion will not only be used as an exploration vehicle for flying crew to space, but also for sustaining the crew during missions and providing safe reentry from deep space. The spacecraft's initial flight test, called Exploration Flight Test-1, will launch in December from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a Delta IV Heavy rocket. The test will involve a two-hour, four-orbit flight of the un-crewed spacecraft more than 3,600 miles into space. It will evaluate the performance of launch and high-speed reentry systems such as Orion's heat shield, avionics, attitude control, and parachutes.

[ Related story: NASA Orion Space Capsule Has Surprising Brain.]

A second Orion flight test, called Exploration Mission-1, is scheduled in 2017, and if that's successful, a crewed mission will take flight in 2021. Exploration Mission-1 will mark the first time Orion launches on the SLS, which is NASA's heavy-lift rocket. NASA said the SLS is more powerful than any existing rocket and will have the capability to carry astronauts to an asteroid, and ultimately, to Mars. The goal of the asteroid mission is to identify, capture, and redirect a small asteroid into a stable orbit near the moon. Astronauts traveling on the Orion crew capsule will visit the asteroid and take samples, which will then be sent back to Earth for research.

But before the mission can take place, engineers will be evaluating results from the flight tests. One major area of focus is the launch abort system (LAS), which is designed to activate in an emergency and carry astronauts away from the launch pad and the rocket. Parachute deployment, heat shield protection, radiation levels, and computer function also will be closely monitored, according to NASA.

NASA's $17.5 billion fiscal 2015 budget will support efforts surrounding Orion, the SLS, and the asteroid mission. NASA also requested that Congress approve $133 million for early development of the asteroid project. The space agency has aligned its budget with a "strategic plan" that prioritizes space technologies essential to making advances in science, aeronautics, and space exploration.

"With Orion's first flight later this year, deep space exploration is imminent, and we need the right technology to thrive in deep space," Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology, said during a media teleconference on April 16.

Explore our slideshow to learn more about the Orion spacecraft, its milestones, and capabilities.

(Image source: NASA)

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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Harold_the_Wolf
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Harold_the_Wolf,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/21/2014 | 3:37:15 PM
No advanced propulsion?
So no Plasma or Ion engines or even a solar sail? This just looks like an oversized Appolo craft with 2005 electronic technology and 1960's propulsion.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 2:48:33 PM
Re: Visiting asteroids
I doubt it. As powerful and as flexible as robotic systems are now, never mind by then, I still feel that machines can't do what people do best, and that's innovate and react to unanticipated situations. Asteroids are far enough out into space that speed-of-light delays will significant, so I'm confident that humans on-site will be a necessity.
tka2013
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tka2013,
User Rank: Strategist
7/21/2014 | 12:26:26 PM
Re: Humans in space
I for one would be disappointed should we seriously consider stopping sending human astronauts into space.  Jointly or following advanced scouting missions by AI is acceptable, but it is something more grand that speaks to our imagination and enthusiasm when it is a human doing the exploring.
Banacek
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Banacek,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/21/2014 | 11:53:05 AM
Re: Visiting asteroids
Whoopty, it isn't about the time to develop and test. There's also the concern over solar radiation.

The chips used in space have to be hardened against radiation manipulation, and also use good enough check-bits and the like to make sure computations and data are not corrupted. The smaller the chips get, the harder it is to prevent such things.

Thus, I think the thought of having an AI working in space is pretty far down the road.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 11:04:46 AM
Re: Visiting asteroids
@SaneIT yes, it is, and there are extensive plans for a space supply chain -- the topic of a blog I wrote that should be pubished soon. One of the things that could prove helpful is 3D printing space, and plans are now set to launch a 3D printer into space in August -- the subject of another upcoming blog of mine.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 10:57:38 AM
Re: Visiting asteroids
The problem there, is that these things take such a long time to develop and test. There's reasons that the Curiosity Rover (launched in 2011) was only mounted with a 2MP camera, despite something as simple as commercial phones running 12MP without a hitch at that point.

The technolgoy needs to be tried and tested over years. Bear in mind too the cost involed. It seems unlikely that an AI system could replace a human in just over 10 years from now, but even if one could, it wouldn't be worth risking the 10s of billions of dollars in planning money on a what-if?


SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 7:54:56 AM
Re: Visiting asteroids
You have to look at this timeline and wonder how they decide a technology will be ready.  We all hear about the miniscule computing power that the Apollo and even the shuttle missions had on board. NASA seems to be pretty good at hitting objects in space with a minimal amount of technology doing the driving so I don't know that we'll see an advanced AI doing the piloting.  I do think that would be an incredible project though, instead of shooting probes out into space and relaying directions that take days to arrive a fleet of AI driven probes that can turn away from danger or toward things that catch it's attention would be very exciting to watch.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
7/21/2014 | 2:16:44 AM
Visiting asteroids
How interesting. I recently read about a mission to an asteroid that is supposed to hit the Earth at some point in the future. 

By 2025 maybe robotics and autonomous AI have developed enough to be sent in the missions instead of humans.

-Susan
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