Orion spacecraft makes historic launch

NASA's deep-space vehicle on its first test flight, will make two orbits around Earth to test its tech

orion launch reuters rocket
Steve Nesius/Reuters

After kept NASA's Orion spacecraft from lifting off Thursday, the next-generation spacecraft had a flawless launch at 7:05 this morning.

Orion, the spacecraft designed to take astronauts into deep space, is on a 4.5-hour trip in which it will make two orbits around the Earth and reach a distance of 3,600 miles above the planet.

"Orion is functioning perfectly at this point," a NASA announcer said .

The first test flight is significant because Orion is a critical part of NASA's plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s. At this point, all of the space agency's deep space plans lie with the success of Orion.

NASA has taken heavy criticism for retiring its fleet of space shuttles in 2011 and paying the Russians to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station so the U.S. space agency could focus on launching Orion and building the robotics and heavy-lift rockets that will be needed to take astronauts to Mars.

Today's launch is a major milestone in those efforts.

The uncrewed spacecraft carries 1,200 sensors that are tracking the conditions inside its crew compartment, as well as monitoring the performance of its heat shield, life support systems, navigation systems and computers.

As of 7:30 a.m. ET today, Orion had reached orbit, traveling at the same orbital level as the International Space Station. About two hours into its trip, its engines will give it a boost and send it into a second orbit -- this one 3,600 miles above Earth.

Orion also will pass through the Van Allen Belts, an area of high radiation that will test the performance of the spacecraft's computers and life support systems under extreme environmental stress.

Matt Lemke, NASA's deputy manager for Orion's avionics, power and software team, told Computerworld on Thursday that NASA installed three redundant computers – all running IBM's 12-year-old PowerPC 750FX single-core processors – in case one or more computers needs to be reset because of radiation trauma.

He noted that the chance of losing all three computers at the same time is extremely small, about one in 1,870,000 missions.

Orion's journey should end today with a splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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