How NASA’s Spacecraft Orion Will Survive in Deep Space

How NASA's Spacecraft Orion Will Survive in Deep Space

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When a spacecraft built for humans ventures into deep space, it requires an array of features to keep it and a crew inside safe.

Both distance and duration demand that spacecraft must have systems that can reliably operate far from home, be capable of keeping astronauts alive in case of emergencies and still be light enough that a rocket can launch it. Here are the five technologies needed for the spacecraft to survive.

Systems to Live and Breathe

The systems that keep humans alive must be highly reliable while taking up minimal mass and volume as they travel farther from Earth for longer missions. Orion will be equipped with advanced environmental control and life support systems designed for the demands of a deep space mission. A high-tech system already being tested aboard the space station will remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and humidity from inside Orion.

Proper Propulsion

The farther into space a vehicle ventures, the more capable its propulsion systems need to be to maintain its course on the journey with precision and ensure its crew can get home. Orion has a highly capable service module that serves as the powerhouse for the spacecraft, providing propulsion capabilities that enable Orion to go around the Moon and back on its exploration missions. 

Heat Shields

The farther a spacecraft travels in space, the more heat it will generate as it returns to Earth. Getting back safely requires technologies that can help a spacecraft endure speeds 30 times the speed of sound and heat twice as hot as molten lava or half as hot as the sun. Its advanced heat shield, made with a material called AVCOAT, is designed to wear away as it heats up and withstand temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Protection from Radiation

As a spacecraft travels on missions beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic field, it will be exposed to a harsher radiation environment than in low-Earth orbit with greater amounts of radiation from charged particles and solar storms that can cause disruptions to critical computers, avionics and other equipment. The crew, if exposed to radiation, will face extreme risks of cancer in longterm. To avoid this, Orion comes with a storm shelter below the main deck of the crew module.

Communication and Navigation

Spacecraft venturing far from home go beyond the Global Positioning System (GPS) in space and above communication satellites in Earth orbit. Orion’s communication and navigation systems will switch from NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) system used by the International Space Station, and communicate through the Deep Space Network.