Ooh shiny! NASA’s Orion spacecraft gains new coating
Imagery of what spacecraft and boosters “will” look like frequently fail to accurately depict what the actual vehicles end up looking like. As engineers and scientists reviewed the requirements of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, they opted to make a change to the spacecraft tasked with carrying out the automated Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1).
EM-1 is currently scheduled to take place at the end of 2018 and will take Orion to cislunar space. When it returns to Earth, its re-entry will be 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) per second faster than during last years Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which occurred on Dec. 5, 2014.
While that might not seem like much, it was enough for engineers to opt to add a “shiny” new exterior. This metallic-based coating will be placed over the thermal tiles that encircle the craft’s exterior in order to help bleed off re-entry heat in phases.
Additionally, this highly-reflective coating should enable Orion’s back shell to maintain temperatures between about -150 to 550 °F (-101 to 288 °C) during the mission.
“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 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.
This follows the incremental approach that the agency has developed as it prepares to return to the business of sending crews to destinations in deep space.
NASA is implementing lessons learned during EFT-1 on the next test articles of the spacecraft that are being prepared to be sent aloft. Given that crews have not ventured beyond low-Earth-orbit since December of 1972, NASA and the prime contractor producing Orion, Lockheed Martin, are working to ensure astronauts are protected during the wide temperature ranges endured during the mission as well as the incredible temperatures encountered upon reentry.
The EFT-1 Orion reached speeds of 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) per second and endured temperatures of up to 4,000 °F (2,004 °C) when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after completing two orbits – extending some 3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers) away from our home world. The capsule then returned home at a blistering 20,000 miles (32,187 kilometers) per hour, providing the business end of Orion, its heat shield, with a critical test on the road to carrying crews to deep space destinations.
When Orion finally rides the massive Space Launch System (SLS) super heavy-lift booster in 2018, it will be sent much, much farther out – some 246,000 miles (395,898 km) more distant. EM-1 is currently planned to be a circumlunar flight – an interesting location given NASA’s lack of interest in sending crews to the Moon.
Using advanced systems, such as the Friction Stir Weld tool at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana, NASA and Lockheed Martin have completed the final weld of the cone section of the EM-1 crew module pressure vessel. All total, seven welds are required to complete the pressure vessel – two more still remain.
After the technicians and engineers at the MAF have completed their work on the spacecraft, it will be sent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will undergo final assembly.
“When you look at the Orion crew module for EM-1 from the outside, it will look like the spacecraft we flew on Exploration Flight Test-1,” said Charlie Lundquist, Orion crew and service module manager. “But the spacecraft we’re building for our next mission incorporates a lot of engineering ingenuity and improved manufacturing processes. These improved processes have also contributed to a reduction in weight of the overall spacecraft.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.