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What Is Orion?
March 25, 2015
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Orion ("o-rie-un") is a new NASA spacecraft. NASA plans for Orion to take astronauts to an asteroid or even on the journey to Mars.

What Will Orion Do?

The Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts past the moon. And it will bring them safely back to Earth. Orion will be able to travel to an asteroid or even on the journey to Mars.

When Orion takes the astronauts into space, it will launch on top of a huge rocket. NASA is building this rocket. It is the Space Launch System, or SLS. This kind of rocket is called a heavy-lift launch vehicle. It will take Orion farther into space than people have been before.

Orion will use energy from the sun. This power is called solar energy. Orion has solar panels. They look like the letter X across the outside of the spacecraft. The panels will get power from the sun when Orion is in space.

Orion's First Flight

NASA wants to be sure that Orion will do its job well. And it must work safely. Before Orion or any NASA spacecraft can fly, it must be tested.

Orion's first test flight was on December 5, 2014. The flight launched from Florida. Orion rode on top of a huge rocket called a Delta IV (4) Heavy. (The new SLS is not ready to use yet.) No people rode on Orion during this test. The spacecraft flew all the way around, or orbited, Earth two times. The flight lasted 4 1/2 hours. Then the test spacecraft returned to Earth at high speeds. The test spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near California.

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This first flight tested many parts of Orion. NASA tested the spacecraft’s computers. To stay safe, Orion has a heat shield. The spacecraft is traveling very fast when it returns from space. The spacecraft is going so fast that it heats Earth's air around it. The air temperatures get hotter than molten lava. NASA tested the heat shield to be sure that when astronauts travel in Orion, they will be protected from the heat. NASA also tested Orion’s large parachutes. Their job is to help slow the spacecraft down when it returns to Earth. During the test flight, the parachutes worked perfectly! They helped Orion land safely in the ocean.

What's Next for Orion?

When the SLS rocket is finished, NASA will test the SLS with Orion on top. No people will ride on this flight either. This mission will last 25 days. Orion will orbit the moon. But the spacecraft will go farther into space than people have traveled before. If this test mission goes well, NASA will soon be able to put humans on board Orion. Astronauts will fly on a test mission around the moon. Then NASA will know that Orion is ready to carry humans to Mars


More About Orion
Orion for Kids
Orion A to Z Coloring Book (PDF)
What Is a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle?


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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.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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The Orion capsule, with large inflated red balloons on top, floats in the ocean near a large ship
On December 5, 2014, the Orion spacecraft launched into space and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The Navy ship in the background picked the capsule up after its safe landing.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Page Last Updated: March 25th, 2015
Page Editor: Flint Wild