The Orion spacecraft successfully completed its first automated test flight, preparing the way for NASA's return to deep space for the first time since the Apollo missions, which ended in the early 1970's. On-board the new space capsule was a video camera, which recorded images of the vehicle's fiery descent through the Earth's atmosphere. Much of the video, shot through a window, was streamed live on NASA TV. However, additional footage was recently made available by the space agency, after data was collected on December 5.
The Orion re-entry video begins 10 minutes before touchdown, as the spacecraft begins to enter the atmosphere of the Earth. Within two minutes, the fiery display of the capsule reaches a peak, as friction from the speedy re-entry heats Orion to nearly 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"It's all right there before your eyes just as it happened on Orion and how future astronauts will see it when they return from deep space missions and one day coming home from Mars," NASA officials stated on a blog dedicated to the Orion program.
The Orion space vehicle is the lone surviving piece of the Constellation program, developed during the George W. Bush administration, and cancelled by President Obama in 2010. The vehicle will now be launched as part of the Space Launch System (SLS). Work on the booster for that system is not yet finished, so Orion was launched on top of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket booster.
When the Orion space vehicle splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, it was traveling just 20 miles per hour, slowed from 20,000 MPH when first encountering the atmosphere.
Since the end of the Apollo program, NASA has only flown to low-Earth orbit, aboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. The national space agency designed Orion to bring astronauts to an asteroid, as well as Mars. Officials at NASA hope to put humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030's.
During its first flight, the new spacecraft soared to 3,604 miles from the Earth before turning around, heading back to Earth. Flight of the capsule brought it through the Van Allen belts, and their powerful radiation. The first flight was a resounding success, with all systems performing as expected.
"Orion's flight test was a critical step on NASA's journey to Mars. Work already has begun on the next Orion capsule, which will launch for the first time on top of NASA's new Space Launch System rocket and travel to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon," NASA official wrote.