NASA’s Orion- the spacecraft that will take humans to Mars- had its first successful test flight on Friday..
It lifted off atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, embarking on a four and a half hour journey.
The first test flight is significant because Orion is a critical part of NASA's plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s. Orion will take humans farther into space than they’ve ever gone before.
This morning’s launch was unmanned, but 1,200 sensors tracked the conditions of the crew compartment, as well as monitored the performance of its heat shield, life support systems, navigation systems and computers.
After orbiting the Earth two times, at an altitude of 3,600 miles, the spacecraft started its reentry. During the most dangerous part of its flight, the temperature around the vehicle reached 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 2,200 Celsius.
By the time it got closer to splashdown, Orion was going 300 miles per hour. Hitting the ocean at that speed would be deadly to occupants so instead, three parachutes deployed to gently place it in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.
It was recovered by the U-S Navy using the USS Anchorage and will be brought to a naval base in San Diego, before being trucked back to Florida.
Having maintained a presence on the International Space Station for more than 14 years, NASA is now looking to more ambitious targets like Mars.
In San Francisco, Melissa Aparicio, IDG News Service.