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Orion spacecraft passes demanding tests to prepare for flight

Elizabeth Howell, Contributor
12 April 2014, 06:04

Sen—As NASA prepares to send its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle far beyond the International Space Station this year, the spacecraft underwent 26 hours of continuous operations on the ground on 8 April and performed well, the agency said.

This "integrated system testing" was necessary to verify that the spacecraft's various systems can work well together. Among other things, technicians verified the spacecraft's computer, propulsion valves, software and temperature sensors. 

"This has been the most significant integrated testing of the Orion spacecraft yet," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's human exploration and operations.

"The work done to test the avionics with the crew module isn't just preparing us for Orion's first trip to space in a few months. It's also getting us ready to send crews far into the Solar System."

Orion spacecraft

NASA's Orion spacecraft undergoes avionics testing at the Kennedy Space Center's operations and checkout building in 2014. Image credit: Lockheed Martin

Orion is a next-generation spacecraft (built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin) intended to bring crews outside of Earth's orbit. It is distinct from the commercial spacecraft, such as SpaceX's Dragon, that the agency is supporting for eventual International Space Station crew transfers. Orion's destination has not been selected yet, but the agency says it is flexible enough to be used for Moon missions or visits to asteroids, for example.

The first flight test for Orion is expected in December. The spacecraft will soar more than 5,800 kilometres (3,600 miles) from Earth, about 15 times the altitude of the International Space Station. Next it will swing around to endure the highest temperatures of any spacecraft intended for humans since the Apollo Moon program. During re-entry, the spacecraft is expected to encounter temperatures of about 2,200 degrees Celsius (4,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

There's still much testing to go through before then, however. Orion will next go through vibration testing this coming week. After that, technicians plan to install the heat shield and the crew module with its service module.

Orion spacecraft

A NASA Orion spacecraft prototype during a parachute test in 2012. Credit: NASA

NASA and Lockheed also got approval last week to start construction on a robotic spacecraft that will visit the asteroid Bennu in 2018 and return samples from its surface, if all goes to plan.

Called OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer), one of the mission's main aims is to find out more about what the early solar system was made of. Asteroids are considered leftovers of Solar System formation, providing a time capsule that scientists can probe to gain information about how our neighbourhood came together.

The mission is also supposed to provide more information for NASA's asteroid initiative, which is a vision the agency has to tow an asteroid closer to Earth for astronauts to examine on a flight of the new Orion spacecraft. 

In late March, NASA announced $6 million in potential contracts for the asteroid initiative. Tender possibilities range from "asteroid capture system concepts" to rendezvous sensors to spacecraft designs, the agency said at the time.