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NASA begins work on Orion’s heat shield

Dr Amanda Doyle, Feature writer
Mar 11, 2012, 8:00 UTC

Sen—Work has begun on creating a heat shield for NASA’s Orion MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle).

The heat shield must be able to withstand the intense heat of re-entry, and it will be tested in upcoming flight tests that simulate the craft's re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The heat shield will contain 1,300 special tiles and so far 33 of these tiles have been made by engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Twenty people are busy making the tiles, while another twenty people are installing them on the craft. 

The tiles need to be diligently constructed, and so it will take eleven months to shape and coat them with heat-resistant, ceramic material. 

The tiles for Orion will be constructed from the same material as those that adorned the underside of the space shuttle. However, Orion’s tiles will be slightly larger than the tiles of the space shuttle. Also, multiple tiles can have the same dimensions as opposed to the unique details of each space shuttle tile. 

"That's a huge improvement over shuttle," said Thermal Protection System engineer Joy Huff "Even having nine or ten of the same part is a big improvement."

The most notable difference between the tiles of Orion and the space shuttle is their number – the shuttle had to be covered with 23,000 tiles. However, there is a downside to Orion because the craft will splash land in the ocean, rendering the absorbent tiles useless. This means that 1,300 tiles will have to be constructed for every Orion mission.

The Orion tiles will have to withstand greater temperatures than the shuttle, as the craft decelerates from the greater speeds involved with deep space missions. 

A digital jigsaw will be created on a computer, after each tile is photographed with a 3-D camera, to allow the engineers to see exactly how they should be fit together. The tiles will then be placed around the sides and on the top of the cone-shaped craft, and the bottom of Orion will be protected by a heat shield based on an Apollo design.

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin's Vertical Testing Facility in Colorado. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin
The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin's Vertical Testing Facility in Colorado. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA plans that the Orion spacecraft will be its next manned vehicle that takes astronauts beyond Earth orbit to distant planetary bodies.

The first unmanned flight test is due to take place in 2014, and several drop tests have already been performed.

VIDEO: view an animation of the planned 2014 test flight

The 2014 test flight will be unmanned and will launch the spacecraft 3,000 miles into space in order to reach speeds of more than 20,000 mph before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. This test will provide engineers with data on Orion’s performance during launch, re-entry and landing.

Following this, further tests of the launch abort system will take place as Orion builds toward its first crewed exploration flights.