NASA's fancy new capsule for deep space exploration, Orion, is steadily counting down to its December 4th test flight. The last module was installed, the rocket is on the pad, and now we've got a full rundown of the testing sequence. This is actually happening!
Ooooh, pretty! Artistic representation of Orion's first test flight.
The Orion spacecraft undergoing final testing before heading to the launch pad. Image credit: NASA
Last time we checked in on Orion, the spacecraft was fully fuelled and being rolled into its final indoor destination for the installation of the Launch Abort System (LAS). The system's purpose is to separate and fling the crew capsule to safety if sometime goes wrong during launch. The spacecraft will now undergo extensive testing to ensure everything is ready for the flight until it is rolled out to the launch pad in mid-November.
As the first test flight is uncrewed, LAS will be passive for the launch, activating a jettison motor to pull it and the nose fairing away from the rest of the craft just before Orion goes into orbit.
Lab technicians checking over Orion's systems after the installation of the Launch Abort System. Image credit: NASA
Meanwhile, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy Rocket was erected at the pad. While it may seem a bit early for an early December launch, that's standard for the nearly 55-meter tall rocket.
The Delta Heavy slowly being erected on Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: NASA
The Delta IV Heavy is the most powerful launch vehicle currently flying, using a center common booster core with two strap-on common booster cores. Each booster core is powered by a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine, producing more than 660,000 pounds of thrust.
Delta IV Heavy erection. Image credit: NASA
The rocket was carried to the pad by the Elevating Platform Transporter on September 30th, and tilted upright the following morning using the Fixed Pad Erector until it was in position within the Mobile Service Tower. A team of fifteen engineers and technicians from United Launch Alliance were involved in the transportation and lift. Here's a timelapse of the rocket's roll-out, arrival, and erection:
Now the rocket will undergo a high fidelity rehearsal, including loading the tanks with fuel and oxidizer, and fully powering up the booster. In November, the Orion capsule will be brought out to the rocket for yet another round of check-outs and testing in advance of the test flight.
The 4.5-hour test flight on December is going to be high and fast, sending the spacecraft zipping around the Earth for two orbits before reentry:
Orion is in the final stages of preparation for the uncrewed flight test that will take it 3,600 miles above Earth on a 4.5-hour mission to test many of the systems necessary for future human missions into deep space. After two orbits, Orion will reenter Earth's atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour, and reach temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit before its parachute system deploys to slow the spacecraft for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Here's the lowdown on exactly what's going to happen, what we're testing, and why it's important if we want to extend crewed missions beyond Earth orbit:
The Orion spacecraft takes a lot of grief for being a massive government project with the associated inevitable higher-cost, not-really-useful contributions from whatever districts have particularly effective Congress-critters for nabbing contracts. That's part of what makes it so amazing that this deep space craft is almost ready for its first integrated test flight. Instead of stressing individual components, the whole craft will get popped into orbit, race around, and come back down again, testing out everything from launch to splashdown. This is a real thing, with dedicated preparations and equipment lined up to make it happen. I am so, so excited!
Am I allowed to start counting down to December 4th yet? (It's 57 days until blastoff.)