Mankind will take another step towards Mars next week with the launch of the Orion spacecraft. According to ABC News, Orion will be able to carry four astronauts into deep space, assuming that it passes these preliminary tests. The new spacecraft will not only provide potential for a Mars mission, it will hopefully one day end the U.S. reliance on foreign countries like Russia to get into orbit.
The launch is planned for December 4 at 7:04 a.m. eastern time. Orion will be on a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral, and it will land in the Pacific Ocean four and a half hours later 600 miles off the coast of San Diego.
Orion is scheduled to orbit the Earth twice before its splashdown in it's mission called Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).
According to the Denver Post, the mission will have four objectives: send Orion into orbit, successfully carry out four separation events, test the heat shield (the largest heat shield of its kind ever made), and test the descent and landing systems.
NASA's Bill Hill explained the significance of the mission.
"EFT-1 is absolutely the biggest thing that this agency is going to do this year. This is really our first step on our journey to Mars."
Despite its potential, Orion is still at least seven years away from carrying human passengers, and has even more challenges ahead if it's going all the way to Mars. To keep humans alive for a long-distance journey to Mars, Orion will have to protect astronauts from long-term exposure to radiation in space. To test the effects of the radiation, EFT-1 will send Orion into what is known as the Van Allen belts, an area of space with high radiation dangers.
The craft is equipped with radiation shielding to protect vital systems like guidance and the internal computers.
When it comes to future human passengers, the project is already lacking funding for a habitat module, but one key feature will have to be protection for long-term radiation exposure.
The Orion craft also has no funding for a lander to get astronauts to the surface of Mars, even though NASA has already spent about $9 billion and eight years on the spacecraft.
Nevertheless, even the test mission is exciting news for space enthusiasts. Orion is set to reach an altitude of 3,600 miles; the furthest a spacecraft designed for human passengers has gone in 40 years.
NASA released a video detailing Orion's journey and it's preparation for a journey to distant Mars featured below.
[Image Credit: NASA]