There have been so many space missions over the years that it I hard to imagine that a human being hasn’t stepped out of low Earth orbit (LEO) for the last 50 years. United States (US) space agency NASA is set to change that with Orion, a spacecraft that will take astronauts further into space than anyone has ever been.
What is LEO?
Low Earth orbit or LEO refers to the movement of spacecraft around the Earth at heights less than 2000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Understand that the word ‘low’ here is relative. Regular airplanes fly at heights less than 12 km so a LEO orbit under 2000 km is still pretty high.
The last human to step out of LEO orbit was astronaut Eugene Cernan who stepped on to the Moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission. The Moon is at a distance of 384,400 kilometres from earth so it’s a long way from LEO orbit.
What is the Orion mission?
The Orion spacecraft’s manned space flight will occur within the next five years. The craft, which can carry a crew of four astronauts, will go deep into space. It will circle Earth twice, go around the Moon and then head home. A test flight minus humans is planned for 2019.
To travel so deep into space, Orion will need to be launched on a very special rocket. That is why NASA is working on the Space Launch System, a giant rocket that can produce the enormous thrust (force) that can propel it into deep space. Orion will be the first spacecraft to be launched using the new rocket.
Orion is unusual in more than its mission goals. Parts of Orion will be ‘printed out’ using 3D printers. In fact it will contain more than 100 3D-printed parts. Some of these parts are being made with a special plastic that can handle extremely high temperatures and the tremendous forces it takes to launch a spacecraft into deep space.
Hello deep space!
The Orion spacecraft is the platform on which NASA is planning manned space explorations to Mars and beyond. So, after fifty years of pretty much staying on our planet, we humans are set to make a giant leap!