Following its successful launch this morning, the Orion spacecraft has successfully landed with a "bullseye" splashdown. After hitting its target in the Pacific Ocean 270 miles off the coast of Baja, California, Orion's mission was declared a success by NASA.
Quoted by the Associated Press, Mission Control commentator Rob Navias called the unmanned capsule's journey "the most perfect flight you could ever imagine," saying, "There's your new spacecraft, America!"
NASA's #Orion lands with 'bullseye' splashdown; see photos and video here: http://t.co/aU73IfYjsH pic.twitter.com/vXIBU4Nz83
— 89.3 KPCC (@KPCC) December 5, 2014
The Orion flight ended a short four-and-a-half hours after it began, and managed to achieve at least one important record: flying further and faster than any spacecraft designed to be manned by a human crew since the historic Apollo program, which concluded 42 years ago. The much-anticipated test flight orbited our planet twice and achieved a zenith of 3,604 miles, a stunning 14 times farther from Earth than the International Space Station.
Coming home! #Orion looks back on Earth as it heads toward splashdown. http://t.co/ESXAb8kpeM pic.twitter.com/42z1Wac9ph
— Johnson Space Center (@NASA_Johnson) December 5, 2014
Amazing visuals of #Orion's return from @NASAArmstrong Ikhana aircraft. pic.twitter.com/psYbvyxvxP
— Orion Spacecraft (@NASA_Orion) December 5, 2014
#Orion traveled 60,000 miles + farther into space than any ship for humans has gone in 40+ yrs!
— NASA (@NASA) December 5, 2014
NASA had to send Orion to that height in order to set the spacecraft crew module on the right track to make a 4,000-degree entry at an incredible speed of 20,000 miles per hour. The re-entry into Earth's atmosphere was considered to be the most critical portion of the test flight, as it determined whether the capsule's heat shield would be sufficient for human survival before a future, manned Orion spacecraft journey deep into the universe.
NASA scientists received the answer to their question about 11 minutes after the descent began, when Orion gradually slowed to a speed of just 20 miles per hour, with the final descent aided by a sequence of eight parachutes. A human crew would have been forced to endure as much as 8.2 Gs during the spacecraft reentry. NASA says that's twice the amount of Gs astronauts aboard Russian Soyuz capsules returning from the International Space Station receive.
Orion was filmed by an unmanned drone during its return, and after splashdown, helicopters flying nearby relayed images of the spacecraft crew module bobbing up and down in the cool, green water of the Pacific. One slight malfunction that could have had a minor effect on astronauts if they had been aboard was the failure of two of the five air bags onboard to deploy properly. Three Orion air bags did inflate as planned, keeping the spacecraft afloat until it could be recovered by the U.S. Navy.
This successful test flight is ushering in a new space exploration era with the ultimate aim of sending a manned mission deep into space, and according to CNN, perhaps as far as Mars. Other targets beyond Earth's orbit are also on NASA's radar for future Orion spacecraft missions, including trips to asteroids that could help answer questions about the origins of Earth and other planets.
Congrats #Orion! We're one step closer to bootprints next to these rover tracks. #JourneyToMars pic.twitter.com/1l51sQwpMh
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) December 5, 2014
[Image courtesy of Space.com]