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SciShow Space News takes you step by step through the first voyage of the Orion spacecraft.

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On Friday December 5, the world got its first look at the next generation of space flight when NASA's Orion Spacecraft made its first voyage.

It was a test flight, mind you, so it had no crew, but it was the first opportunity to test all of the Orion's critical systems, some of which are brand-new technologies that have never been used before in space. And the flight went very well, once it finally happened.

The four and a half hour excursion, officially known as Exploration Flight Test-1, was originally planned for the morning of Thursday December 4th. But while preparing for launch, a device in one of the rocket boosters known as a fill and drain valve malfunctioned.

By the time all the necessary tests were done, Orion had missed its launch window for the day, and the test flight was pushed back.

So, on Friday at 7:05 am Cape Canaveral time, Orion took off aboard the Delta IV Heavy rocket. This is the most powerful rocket NASA currently has in operation, each of its three boosters carrying 606 metric tons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

About 90 seconds after liftoff, Orion and the Delta IV Heavy surpassed the speed of sound. Four minutes later, Orion released the rocket's port and starboard boosters, leaving only the central booster to propel it into space for another 90 seconds before releasing that as well.

Orion then jettisoned its launch abort system. This cone shaped tip of the spacecraft is designed to act like a kind of ejection seat if there's a problem in the first few minutes of takeoff.

In that disaster scenario, the abort system pulls the entire crew module away from the Delta IV and navigates it back to Earth using small propellant rockets.

But because the liftoff went well, only the launch abort system was jettisoned as planned, leaving the crew module and a rocket engine behind to continue into space.

About seventeen minutes after takeoff, Orion reached an altitude of 888 kilometers and began its first lap around the planet.

Then, on its second lap, it began climbing toward the highest point of its mission, 5,800 kilometers above the Earth.

This was the climax.

To give you some perspective, the International Space Station orbits at an altitude of 480 kilometers. So yeah, fifteen times higher. The highest a passenger craft has gone since the US last landed on the moon 42 years ago.

In order to reach that altitude, Orion had to pass through the lower Van Allen belt, a layer of dangerous radiation that's created by solar winds and cosmic rays, and is kept in place by the Earth's magnetic field.

This radiation could destroy Orion's electrical systems if the spacecraft wasn't properly shielded.

So, NASA engineers came up with a protective layer of what's known as low-Z materials.

These materials consist largely of elements like hydrogen and carbon, whose atoms have a low number of nucleons - those are like protons and neutrons in the atom's nucleus.

This kinds of atoms absorb radiation better than those with a high number of nucleons, so Orion's low-Z coating used materials like polyethylene and even water packs to keep the spacecraft safe.

Once the craft reached its apogee of 5,800 kilometers, it began its descent back to Earth.

After traveling through the radiation belt again, the crew module separated from the rocket using jets to stabilize itself.

The module then entered the Earth's atmosphere at 32,000 kilometers per hour and generated temperatures up to 2,200 degrees Celsius. That's twice as hot as lava.

This was the big test for Orion's state of the art heat shield, the largest heat shield ever created.

It's five meters in diameter but only four centimeters thick, fashioned out of titanium and fitted with a fiberglass skin that looks like honeycomb.

Each one of the 320,000 honeycomb cells are filled with a substance known as AVCOAT, an epoxy resin that burns slowly, eroding and channeling heat away from the spacecraft.

Even though the heat shield withstood searing temperatures, only 20% of the shield actually burned, which is good, because Orion was going 20% slower than it would have been if it was returning from the Moon.

Once in the atmosphere, the craft deployed three sets of parachutes, three different times to slow it down, and splashed into the Pacific Ocean near Baja California at 11:29 Eastern Standard Time.

The USS Anchorage retrieved the module and NASA scientist are now sifting through the reams of data they got from this first test flight, looking at avionics, attitude control and radiation levels.

But today we can say we are one step closer to landing on the moon again, and one giant faraway leap closer to landing on Mars someday, or sending Matthew McConaughey into deep space.

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