Nasa’s Orion space capsule designed to one day bring mankind to Mars and beyond has completed its first unmanned space flight after a one-day delay, heralding the new age of space exploration.
Sitting atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, the capsule resembling command modules of the legendary Apollo era but packed with cutting-edge technology, shot off for its journey shortly after 12pm GMT from Nasa’s main spaceport at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
"I think it's a big day for the world, for people who know and like space," Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said during a Nasa Television interview shortly before the launch.
"Everything may not go right, but everything that does go right means that we've bought down one more risk on this vehicle," Bolden said.
The 24-storey-high Delta IV Heavy, currently the most powerful launcher in the world, took the capsule to orbit in only 17 minutes. In subsequent tweets following the launch Nasa confirmed that the spacecraft had reached its preliminary orbit and jettisoned the abort system before reaching its target altitude of 5,800km above the Earth's surface three hours after lift-off.
The ultimate test of Orion's capabilities came in the second half of the four-and-a-half-hour journey. After circling twice around the planet, the spacecraft plunged back towards the Earth hurtling through the atmosphere at 32,000km/h.
The fiery flight through the Earth’s atmosphere has tested the capsule's re-entry systems and the heat shield in similar conditions as experienced by spacecraft returning from lunar orbit. Orion's five metre in diameter heat shield warmed up to 2,200°C during the re-entry before the capsule's 11 parachutes deployed, decelerating the spacecraft ahead of its ultimate splashdown into the waters of the Pacific Ocean some 1,014km southwest of San Diego, California. When Orion hit the water surface at about 4:30pm GMT, it was travelling at merely 32km/h.
Reuters reported that ahead of the launch cars had jammed roads for miles around the Florida spaceport as thousands of people sought to witness the moment, considered widely as a major step towards Nasa’s revival of deep space exploration.
The Orion test flight took place just two days before the 42nd anniversary of the launch of the final Apollo mission in 1972, a bitter reminder that in the four decades since the historical lunar successes humankind has not pushed the boundaries any further.
After the final flight of space shuttle Discovery in 2011, Nasa even lost its ability to bring human crews to the low-orbiting International Space Station, having to rely on Russian services ever since.
The maiden Orion launch was originally scheduled for Thursday but was postponed partly due to problems with valves of the Delta rocket’s first stage and partly due to strong wind gusts at Cape Canaveral.
The Orion capsule is being developed for Nasa by aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin. The space agency has already invested $9bn into the development of the technology, which survived the cancellation of Nasa’s earlier Constellation programme following the 2012 budget cuts.
Together with Orion, Nasa is developing the Space Launch System, an ultra-heavy lift rocket, which is set to become the most powerful launcher ever built.
In four years, Orion is expected to make its second test flight, also unmanned , paving the way for a lunar trip in the early 2020s – the first step towards the journey to Mars and beyond.
The unmanned test flight cost Nasa about $375m.