NASA's Orion spacecraft is suiting up to take humans to space's new frontiers. The spacecraft gets a new shiny paint job to help protect it from exceedingly high temperatures over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during its high-speed re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere at 36,000 feet per second.

Orion's heat protection system plays a vital role in protecting not just the spacecraft but also its passengers during its descent back into the Earth. The silver, metallic paint, which will cover the thermal tiles encircling Orion's exterior, is designed to keep the spacecraft at a near constant temperature at approximately 150 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit.

In space, instead of spending energy to keep the interior warm for the crew and passengers, the metallic paint will do the job. During its descent into the Earth, the metallic paint will keep the extreme heat outside.

"You're trying to hit this sweet spot because when you're looking at the Sun, you don't want to get too hot, and then when you're not looking at the sun and instead in darkness, you don't want to lose all the heat that the spacecraft generates," said NASA's thermal protection system lead for Orion, John Kowal.

Further Enhancements

NASA engineers have also succeeded in refining Orion's designs, paving the way for improvements in manufacturing and reducing overall weight. For the upcoming scheduled missions, 80 separate blocks will make up Orion's heat shield instead of a single large block. These singular blocks can be made along with other components of the heat shield, which then simplifies the whole manufacturing process that used to be labor- and time-consuming.

The weight of the heat shield's fundamental structure has also been reduced. The main structure is made of carbon fiber skin and a titanium skeleton. By studying the various pressures experienced by Orion's numerous parts during flight and descent, NASA engineers enhanced the skin and skeleton's thickness. They gave its fundamental structure more reliability while reducing its overall weight.

The team is gearing up for the next Orion mission set in 2018 or 2019, which will take the spacecraft in space journey lasting three weeks. A high-speed re-entry will follow to test the new thermal protection system boasting of the shiny, new metallic finish.

Photo: NASA Kennedy | Flickr

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