A manned mission to Mars isn’t expected for at least another 15 years. But work continues developing the capabilities needed to get humans beyond low Earth orbit. The Orion spacecraft is NASA’s answer to getting astronauts past the moon.

Early next year, engineers at the NASA Glenn Research Center’s Space Power Facility in Sandusky, Ohio will put Orion’s power system through a series of rigorous tests. A full-size test version of the European Service Module (ESM) will be tested to make sure it can withstand launch atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

The ESM acts as Orion’s main propulsion system and power.

Tests start easy in February as engineers look at the deployable solar array wing. Designed by Airbus DS, the solar array stretches 62 feet across. This test focuses on how the solar array deploys and collapses. Engineers want to see it do both on command and in the proper configuration.

The real fun begins in March and April. How well does the ESM hold up to a launch environment? A trip to the world’s most powerful acoustic test chamber will start to answer that question. Each piece of the ESM will be bombarded with at least 152 decibels and 20-10,000 hertz of sound pressure and vibration. Imagine sitting in a chamber with 20 jet engines at full thrust.

acoustic chamber nasa

Acoustic test chamber

Vibration tests will continue starting in May. The ESM will be placed on a vibration table that simulates the shaking expected as the rocket launches.

“A series of repeated configuration tests will vibrate the stacked parts of the ESM from every possible angle,” says Robert Overy, chief engineer of the ESM Integration Office at NASA Glenn. “We want to push it past the extremes it might experience in the launch environment.”

Engineers will also test the three protective fairings on the ESM. They protect the most delicate parts of the module including avionics and electronics. Once in space, the fairings are jettisoned by a series of pyrotechnic shocks. In August, engineers will look at how well the shock action works. And simulate the shock’s action on the service module.

After seven months of testing, the solar array deployment will be tested one more time.

Each test is designed to make sure Orion’s power system can withstand the rigors of launch and beyond.

Orion and Exploration Mission-1

SLS orion

Artist concept of Orion and SLS launch

In 2018, Orion will launch atop NASA’s Space Launch System for the first time. And usher in a new era of spaceflight.

“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”

It will be a three-week mission that will take the Orion spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center to 40,000 miles past the moon. NASA mission controllers will be watching it and gathering data the entire time.

As Orion flies further away from Earth, mission control will switch from NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay System satellites to the Deep Space Network. A first for a human spaceflight vehicle in decades.

After it swings around the moon, Orion will prepare for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft will slam into our atmosphere at 25,000 mph. The friction will produce temperatures approaching a scorching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Both the speed and temperatures will be higher than last year’s test.

If all goes well, NASA and its partners will continue using trips to the moon to gain the experience and test the technologies needed to put a human on Mars and beyond.

When I’m not playing Rocket League (best game ever), you can find me writing about all things games, space and more. You can reach me at alex@newsledge.com

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