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Orion Spacecraft Splashes Down After High-Orbit Test

In this frame grab from NASA-TV, the Orion capsule floats after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith height of 3,600 miles and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.
In this frame grab from NASA-TV, the Orion capsule floats after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith height of 3,600 miles and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.

NASA's unmanned Orion spacecraft has successfully splashed down about 400 miles west of La Paz, Mexico, in the Pacific Ocean after a liftoff, two orbits and re-entry that lasted just under 4 1/2 hours.

Orion, which could one day take astronauts to Mars, made a "bull's-eye splashdown" at 11:29 a.m. ET, mission control said, after the spacecraft endured a searing 4,000-degree Fahrenheit re-entry and was carried to the ocean surface under four giant red-and-white parachutes.

Mission control called the first test of the capsule a "picture perfect" mission that had surmounted "significant milestones" for the program that could eventually pave the way for putting astronauts on the surface of the Red Planet.

As we reported, NASA scrubbed yesterday's launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla., because it could not resolve a number of technical issues. Today's launch went off without a hitch.

Here's some background:

"As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported earlier this week, Orion is expected to make two orbits at a distance of 3,600 miles from the Earth's surface on its second lap, before conducting a re-entry burn and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

"The flight is meant to validate the vehicle's basic systems, including avionics, heat shielding and parachutes.

"According to Geoff: 'It's designed for deep space, but Orion's first mission will be back to the neighborhood of the moon. The plan is to have a robot capture a small asteroid and drag it back to lunar orbit. Then Orion will carry up to four astronauts to meet it. It's all supposed to happen in the 2020s, though some say the mission is too complicated and not much of an advance.' "

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.