Check out these new photos of NASA’s improved Orion spacecraft

20 Nov 2015

With NASA’s sights firmly set on getting humans to Mars in the coming decades, the Orion spacecraft is being tweaked and improved upon to help us get there, the latest improvement being better thermal paint.

When we finally start getting around to putting humans into test the Orion spacecraft, the thermal protection system and reflective paint will be crucial in keeping the crew alive as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

The craft was first launched into space for testing last year, but this thermal protection system will include the spacecraft’s main heat shield that faces into the atmosphere on re-entry to slow the spaceship down, as well as the grid of tiles known as the back shell.

During Orion’s next mission atop the agency’s Space Launch System rocket, called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), NASA says the spacecraft will be in space for more than three weeks and will be returning to Earth under even faster and hotter conditions than during its first flight.

As it hurtles through the atmosphere at nearly 11,000 metres per second, the craft will reach the rather high temperature of 2,200ºC, so a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will also be bonded to the crew module’s thermal protection system back shell tiles.

“You’re trying to hit this sweet spot because when you’re looking at the sun, you don’t want to get too hot, and then when you’re not looking at the sun and instead are in darkness, you don’t want to lose all the heat that the spacecraft generates,” said John Kowal, NASA’s thermal protection system lead for Orion.

NASA’s engineers have also managed to tinker around with the heat shield’s weight, reducing it significantly, particularly with its underlying structure, composed of a titanium skeleton and carbon-fibre skin.

Orion spacecraft re-entry

An illustration of the Orion spacecraft returning to Earth with the silver, metallic-based thermal control coating. Image via NASA

Orion spacecraft illustration

An artist’s impression of the Orion spacecraft with the European Space Agency’s service module. Image via NASA

Orion spacecraft moon

The Orion spacecraft passing the moon. Image via NASA

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic