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What Is Orion?
March 25, 2015
[image-12]Orion ("o-rie-un") is a new NASA spacecraft for astronauts. The spacecraft will play an important part in NASA's Journey to Mars. Orion will carry astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before.

What Will Orion Do?
Orion will carry astronauts into deep space and then return them home to Earth. Orion will be able to travel to an asteroid or even Mars.

NASA is developing a huge rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS. This rocket is a heavy-lift launch vehicle. Orion will launch on top of this rocket. The heavy-lift launch vehicle will carry Orion beyond low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station orbits, and even past the moon.

Orion has three main parts. The upper section is the launch abort system, or LAS; the crew module is the middle part; and the service module is the lower portion of the spacecraft. Astronauts will sit in the middle section, the crew module. This will be their living quarters. If an emergency occurs during launch or the climb to orbit, the LAS would activate in milliseconds. It would propel the crew module away from the rocket to safety. The LAS looks like a tower on top of the crew module. Beneath the crew module is the service module. It holds the power and propulsion systems. Solar array panels on the service module will track the sun to collect energy. This power will allow the spacecraft to remain in orbit for months at a time.

How Was Orion Designed?

NASA uses new technology and lessons learned from other missions to build new spacecraft. The Orion spacecraft is similar to NASA's Apollo capsule. Apollo was the space program that carried astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.The shape of Orion looks like the Apollo capsule, but the new vehicle is bigger. Instead of the three-person Apollo crew, Orion will carry up to six astronauts.

When returning from deep space, a spacecraft re-enters Earth's atmosphere at a very high speed with high temperatures. A new heat shield will keep the astronauts safe as the crew module returns home. Orion will land in the ocean when it returns with its crew. NASA used lessons learned from Apollo and space shuttle parachutes to design the new Orion parachutes. The updated parachutes will help Orion land safely in water as the vehicle returns from deep space. Orion will use modern technology in many other areas, such as computers, electronics, life-support systems and propulsion systems.

Why Doesn't NASA Use the Space Shuttle?

The space shuttle was an amazing spacecraft that served NASA for 30 years. From 1981-2011, the space shuttle flew 135 missions. The shuttle carried satellites to orbit; transported parts, cargo and crew to build the International Space Station; and helped NASA learn about living and working in space.

However, the space shuttle was not designed to travel beyond low Earth orbit. And it could not stay in space for much more than two weeks at a time, which is far too short for a deep space mission.

Orion's First Flight

Before a spacecraft can fly on a mission, NASA must test it to make sure that it will do the job well and work safely. So Orion had its first flight test on Dec. 5, 2014 -- without a crew. Launched from Florida on a rocket called a Delta IV (4) Heavy, the test vehicle flew two orbits around Earth. The flight lasted 4.5 hours. Orion reached an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth (15 times higher than the International Space Station). The test vehicle hit speeds of 20,000 mph and temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it entered Earth's atmosphere. The test vehicle splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near California.


This first flight tested many parts of Orion. NASA tested Orion's computers, systems, and sensors. The launch abort system and the fairings, which covered the service module, fell away from the spacecraft as planned. The spacecraft passed through high levels of harmful radiation. But shielding protected Orion so the radiation did not have a negative effect on the spacecraft systems. When Orion re-entered Earth's atmosphere, it traveled at 20,000 mph. The fast-moving spacecraft pushed away and heated the air particles that surrounded it. The temperature around the spacecraft reached 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. To protect the spacecraft and the crew that will one day fly in it, Orion has a heat shield. The shield withstood the temperatures that were almost twice as hot as molten lava. And NASA tested large parachutes that successfully slowed Orion down when it returned to Earth at high speeds.

What's Next for Orion?

The flight test of the Orion spacecraft was a step in NASA's Journey to Mars. When the new SLS rocket is finished, NASA will test Orion with it. No crew will ride on this flight either. This mission is called Exploration Mission-1 and will last 25 days. Orion will make a large orbit around the moon. The spacecraft will go farther into space than people have traveled before. After Orion is tested on this mission, it will soon be time for the spacecraft to transport humans.  Exploration Mission-2 will travel the same path as Exploration Mission-1, but this time with a crew! Then, in the 2020s, Orion will carry astronauts to an asteroid. In the 2030s, NASA’s goal is that Orion carry the first human explorers to Mars, the Red Planet!

Words to Know

deep space: the vast region of space that extends beyond the moon, to Mars and across the solar system

propulsion: the force that pushes forward or drives an object forward

system: a group of related parts that move or work together

sensor: a device that detects or senses heat, light, sound, motion, etc., and then reacts to it in a particular way

radiation: a form of energy that is emitted or transmitted in the form of rays, electromagnetic waves, and/or particles. In some cases, radiation can be seen (visible light) or felt like heat (infrared radiation)

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An artist's drawing of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in orbit
NASA plans to test the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in low Earth orbit in 2014.
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The Orion capsule, with large inflated red balloons on top, floats in the ocean near a large ship
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Page Last Updated: March 25th, 2015
Page Editor: Flint Wild