Stay Frosty: NASA's Orion Spacecraft Just Got a New Heat Shield

Thursday, 23 August 2018 - 1:08PM
Technology
Space
NASA
Thursday, 23 August 2018 - 1:08PM
Stay Frosty: NASA's Orion Spacecraft Just Got a New Heat Shield
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Image Credit: MSFC
According to NASA, the announcement of the Orion marked the first time in a generation that NASA had unveiled a spacecraft built for deep space exploration. Though they claim they're not racing Elon Musk to Mars, the space agency has some incredibly ambitious plans ahead of it (like a Deep Space Gateway), and the Orion spacecraft is the key. Unlike Musk's initial Mars missions, which will most likely be one-way trips aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsules, Orion is meant to come back to Earth, which means it needs a heavy-duty heat shield. And according to Space.com, it just got one.

Orion has already gone through one test flight (dubbed EFT-1), and the next step before a crewed mission is EM-1, or Exploration Mission-1, which will take the craft 40,000 miles past the Moon and then bring it back to Earth. While re-entering the planet's atmosphere, the craft is expected to encounter temperatures of around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. To deal with this, the craft has been fitted with a 16.5-foot titanium truss with multiple layers of carbon fiber. On top of this will be a substance called Avcoat, an ablative material that will help the craft deal with the extreme heat. Avcoat was used on the original Apollo missions as a special coating that was applied directly to the surface of the capsules in a honeycomb strcuture, but now NASA has found that affixing blocks of Avcoat to the spacecraft may be a better alternative.

According to John Kowal, who's in charge of managing Orion's thermal protection systems: "A benefit of switching from the honeycomb system to the blocks is, we now can make the Avcoat blocks at the same time that the Orion structure is being made, and when the module is ready, we can secure the blocks, which saves time. Before, with EFT-1, we had to wait for the carrier portion to be done, and then apply the Avcoat directly to the crew module."

Orion's uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 is scheduled to launch in late 2019 or 2020.

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