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Orion splashes down after successful test run around Earth

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Dec 5, 2014, 20:12 UTC, Updated Dec 6, 2014, 1:16 UTC

Sen—Kennedy Space Center, Florida—NASA’s new deep-space Orion capsule blasted off aboard a Delta 4 Heavy rocket Friday to begin a planned 4.5-hour test drive around the planet.

The 24-story tall United Launch Alliance rocket, comprised of three side-by-side liquid-fueled core boosters and the currently the largest in the U.S. fleet, blasted off at 07.05 am EST/12:05 UTC from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Launch was delayed one day due to a technical problem with fill-and-drain valves in the rocket's first-stage liquid oxygen system.

Perched on top of the rocket was the first in a planned series of Orion spaceships, built for NASA by Lockheed Martin. Flying without a crew for its debut mission, the spaceship is intended to return astronauts into deep-space following the end of NASA’s Apollo Moon program in 1972.


Orion heads into orbit for the first time. Image credit: NASA TV

“(This flight) is building upon the legacy of Apollo,” NASA administrator Charlie Bolden told reporters during an informal press conference at the launch pad on Wednesday.

The test began one minute, 25 seconds after liftoff when Orion went supersonic for the first time.  The first of several separation events began five minutes later when protective panels on the Orion’s service module fell away, followed by the jettisoning of the launch abort system.

For this flight, the service module was just a structural element but for Orion’s next mission, slated for 2018, it will include an operational module provided by the European Space Agency.

Seventeen minutes after launch, Orion separated from the Delta 4’s upper-stage booster. Its initial orbit was expected to be 115- by 552 miles (185- by 888 km) above Earth.

A second engine burn three hours later catapulted the capsule as far as 3,600 miles (5,800 km) away, setting up Orion’s high-speed plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere for a critical heat shield test.

The test flight ended with Orion’s parachute descent into the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Baja California, 4 hours, 23 minutes after launch.

Three giant red and white parachutes opened to slow the spaceship to a speed of around 20mph (30 kph) before it hit the ocean. It landed upright, deploying flares and green dye to help recovery of the vessel.

As Orion bobbed on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, two U.S. Navy ships led by USS Anchorage moved in to retrieve it, together with a U.S. Navy H-60 helicopter.