Orion reborn for NASA trip to Mars

NASA has unveiled their new spaceship that will carry astronauts to Mars. Called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, it will ferry four astronauts into space for the six-month flight to the Red Planet.

The new Orion, in the distance, imagined in orbit around Mars
The new Orion, in the distance, imagined in orbit around Mars (NASA)

First however, NASA will use the new spacecraft to fly a crew to a passing asteroid after tests of the spacecraft in Earth orbit are complete.

The MPCV has a similar conical design to the historic Apollo command modules that carried men to the Moon. And if it looks familiar, that is because it is basically Orion, a crewed module that was originally planned for the Constellation program that would have returned astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars.

President Obama scrapped the Constellation project when he entered the White House, but aerospace giant Lockheed Martin continued to work on the technology as a press release from them showed last month. Already $5 billion has been spent on developing it.

Orion would feel rather cramped for astronauts on a journey of several months through space. It is therefore intended to fly it attched to other modules, yet to be designed, to give them living space similar to that which they enjoy on the International Space Station.

A powerful new rocket will also need to be built by NASA to blast the spaceship into orbit, with the previous Ares launcher designs having been effectively abandoned. Realistically, it is unlikely to be ready in time for 2016 when it had been hoped to fly astronauts in Orion in low Earth orbit tests.

President Obama’s new vision which he first stated last year is for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and then to Mars in the 2030s.

As with Apollo, the new space capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean on its return from space, unlike the space shuttle which landed on a runway ready to fly again.

NASA say that the new launch and re-entry techniques will be ten times safer than the shuttle which suffered two disasters and killed 14 astronauts.

The space shuttle is due to make its final flight in July after which American astronauts will have to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

Private companies such as SpaceX in the US are working to provide their own spacecraft to provide NASA with alternative transport to the space station for crews and supplies.

NASA itself will now focus fully on deep space missions for humans and the development of spacecraft and rocket technologies

NASA chief Charles Bolden said: “We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there.”

For some people, 20 or more years is too long to wait to fly humans to Mars. Long-time evangelist and founder of the Mars Society Robert Zubrin believes we can get there in this decade!

In a paper published on the society’s website, Zubrin reveals that he is excited by the technology that SpaceX are developing to fly astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

He says their Falcon-9 heavy launcher is capable of launching the spacecraft that would fly to Mars and their Dragon space capsule would provide suitable acommodation, though cramped, for two astronauts with “the right stuff”.

Zubrin envisages three separate launches. The first would send an unmanned Dragon capsule to Mars orbit where it would wait to act as the vehicle to return astronauts to Earth.

A second launch would an ascent vehicle to lift the astronauts from the martian surface, together with equipment for their stay including a chemical reactor to produce fuel from the atmosphere.

Finally, the third launch would send two astronauts on a six-month voyage to Mars where they would spend 18 months exploring before the positions of the planet and Earth were favourable for the return home.

Zubrin says that flying two astronauts would put “the fewest number of people at risk on the first mission.” He adds:” It’s quite true that not flying anywhere at all would be safer, but if you want to get to Mars, you have to go to Mars.”

It is, however, certain to remain a flight of fancy.

Reporter: Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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