Engineers at NASA have improved the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield so that it can withstand the super fast and extremely hot journey back to Earth. They have been working on the design and manufacturing process of the craft’s thermal protection system ever since its first successful journey through space. They are enhancing Orion’s entire system ahead of its next launch, which promises to be the spacecraft’s most intense mission yet.
The new heat shield is designed with high speeds and temperatures in mind. The Orion spacecraft is expected to reach speeds as high as 36,000 feet per second as it reenters our atmosphere. The new thermal control coating allows both for extremely hot and extremely cold temperatures.
Orion is scheduled to be in space for more than three weeks. The thermal protection system consists of the main heat shield, which slows the spacecraft down and faces into the atmosphere upon re-entry, and the grid of tiles known as the back shell. The spacecraft’s next mission is to sit atop Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), the Space Launch System rocket.
The engineers decided to coat the spacecraft’s back shell panels in silver to help Orion regulate its temperature. As Orion moves away from the Sun, the coating will keep the craft warmer. When the craft is in direct sunlight, the coating will keep the interior cooler.
Orion’s thermal protection system is essential to successful future missions. As we move toward building the system for EM-1, we’ve been able to take advantage of what we learned from building and flying Orion to refine our processes going forward.
According to NASA, this new heat shield will keep the temperatures of Orion ranging from -100 degrees Celsius to 290 degrees Celsius. It will also protect the craft from electrical charges during the roughly 40,000km/h return velocities from the vicinity of the Moon.
Orion flew its first test mission in December 2014. After reentry, engineers decided that they needed to boost Orion’s thermal protection system for missions deeper into space. The vehicle is planned to fly next in 2018 or 2019 above the Space Launch System rocket.