Orion blasts off for maiden flight

Published: Friday 5th December 2014 by The News Editor

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A spacecraft built to take astronauts to Mars has blasted off on its maiden flight around the Earth.

Orion was fired into orbit from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US, by a heavy-lift triple-booster rocket at 12.05pm UK time.

Controllers reported that the launch, postponed from yesterday after a series of mishaps, went without a hitch.

The mission is the first since the Apollo moon landings half a century ago to take a spacecraft built for manned flight into deep space.

During its 4.5-hour flight Orion will travel 3,609 miles from Earth, 15 times the distance to the International Space Station.

Nasa hopes to use Orion to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 and take them to Mars in the 2030s. A midway mission to an asteroid is also on the cards.

As the rocket roared into orbit, cameras streamed video showing dramatic pictures of the two side boosters falling away and the curved edge of the Earth.

Just three minutes into the launch, the spacecraft was already travelling at five times the speed of sound.

A major milestone was passed smoothly when the first and second stages separated.

At the end of the flight the capsule, that on future flights will contain a four-man crew, will re-enter the atmosphere at 20,000mph and splash down into the Pacific ocean off Baja California.

Re-entry will be a critical time in the test flight as the temperature of Orion’s heat shield rises to around 2,000C.

Orion is due to circle the Earth twice on its short test flight.

Earlier, programme manager Mark Geyer said: “We’re going to test the riskiest parts of the mission. Ascent, entry and things like fairing separations, Launch Abort System jettison, the parachute, plus the navigation and guidance – all those things are going to be tested.

“Plus, we’ll fly into deep space and test the radiation effects on those systems.”

The rocket that launched Orion from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the largest currently in service in the US, a Delta IV Heavy.

At lift off, its three RS-68 engines together produced about two million pounds of thrust.

Orion bears a striking resemblance to the Apollo command module that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.

But appearances are deceptive. The new spacecraft bristles with technology that was unheard of in Neil Armstrong’s time, including touch-screen controls instead of physical switches.

Unlike the Apollo module, which carried three astronauts, Orion is designed for a crew of four.

Measuring 16.5 feet across, it is larger than Apollo, which had a diameter of 12.8 feet.

An estimated 27,000 guests invited by the American space agency Nasa witnessed the launch, according to the Associated Press news agency.

The atmosphere at Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Centre was said to be reminiscent of the space shuttle days.

The last space shuttle flew more than three years ago.

Published: Friday 5th December 2014 by The News Editor

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