For the first time in over a decade, NASA is building a new spaceship that will take humans to asteroids and Mars. The Orion Spaceship is capable of both cargo and manned missions, which differentiates itself from most spacecrafts. Before these historic trips can be made, NASA is developing new technologies for the spaceship that will advance space travel in all forms.
The first flight of Orion was in 2014. Known as Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), it was considered a successful mission because of the information NASA learned after it returned safely to Earth. When looking at EFT-1, the initial Thermal Protection System safely delivered. The ship reentered the atmosphere during its first test at a speed of roughly 30,000 feet per second. However, the issue is when entering the lunar atmosphere and reentering the earth's atmosphere. The Orion Spacecraft is expecting greater speeds upwards of 36,000 feet per second. This results in higher temperatures, something that must be combated in order to safely travel when humans are on board. This seemingly subtle change is rather drastic as temperatures will skyrocket.
New Thermal Protection System Increases safety
Although the spaceship was able to safely come back to Earth, NASA dedicated their focus to improving the ship’s Thermal Protection System. This new system is crucial because it will allow the ship to withstand extreme conditions as humans begin to travel deeper in space than ever before.
The Thermal Protection System deflects heat from the spaceship during takeoff and reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The ship is exposed to high temperatures and without an effective and reliable deflection system, the ship will burn up. One of the materials used is titanium 6-4. This strong alloy can withstand great temperatures and is utilized in the ceramic covering of the tiles. As seen in the chart above, its reaction to increasing temperatures also shows an increase in its conductivity. Even though conductivity increases, it is still safe because the percentage of electrical currents faced upon reentry are low enough to be considered safe. Without the incorporation of titanium 6-4 and the ceramic covering, astronauts could be put in danger.
As the design of the ship continues, there is a need for better temperature control. The challenge resides in using material that keeps the ship in a consistent temperature range. The new Thermal Protection System will be equipped with a silver, metallic-based thermal coating that is then fused with the black shell tiles on the front. The ship’s 180 man made tiles pared with the coating will create a more controlled temperature environment. For example, as direct sunlight hits the ship, the tiles act as an insulator and keep the temperature stable, as well as when sunlight disappears. Even when the ship is past the forces of exiting and reentry, the sun can alter the temperature of the ship.
Space Launch System is a cheaper and safer method of leaving Earth
One of the key advancements for the Orion spacecraft is its new source of initial power, the Space Launch System. This has turned into the most powerful rocket ever created. With this new technology, NASA is able to have a rocket that is not only cheaper to build, but also safer. This new rocket separates from its predecessor, the Saturn V, as it offers 20% more thrust. It also distinguishes itself as having the highest ever payload mass and volume capability to deliver both cargo and manned missions into space. This new technological improvement is a major stepping stone towards getting a man on Mars as it will allow Orion to reach its desired speed on its journey.
The Big Picture: putting a man on Mars
Both the addition of the Thermal Protection System and Space Launch System progresses the mission of Orion. The end goal is to put a human on Mars. Without these developments, it would not be safe enough for humans to board the spacecraft. These seemingly minor improvements of adding more layers to the heat shield and designing a new rocket has far greater application for future space travel.
With the implementation of these technologies NASA is able to continue its projected timeline of having a man on mars in the late 2020’s to early 2030’s. The Journey to Mars is one that requires a great deal of effort and dedication. These improvements are critical to the future missions of deep space travel.