The Orion spacecraft may have taken less than five hours to fly into space and back, but it will take a fortnight for it to return to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, so Lockheed Martin, builder of the capsule, is conducting tests on the fly. As the 19,650 lb (8,913 kg) capsule designed to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit was unloaded ashore in San Diego, California from the recovery ship USS Anchorage, Lockheed engineers were waiting to take samples of the heat shield and begin processing the flight recorders.
The Orion was launched on December 5 at 7:05am EST from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy booster. The capsule, which carried no crew on this flight, and its dummy service module flew on a four and half hour, two-orbit trajectory that took it 3,600 mi (5,800 km) away from the Earth. When it re-entered the atmosphere, it was moving at a speed of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h) and generated temperatures reaching 4,000⁰ F (2,200⁰ C). It splashed down in the Pacific 270 mi (435 km) off the coast of Baja, California and was recovered by specially-trained US Navy divers in Zodiacs from the USS Anchorage, assisted by the salvage ship USNS Salvor.
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After being brought ashore, Lockheed engineers took samples from the world's largest heat shield in order to assess its performance and ablation rates during its fiery passage though the atmosphere. Lockheed says that the samples will help in learning how well the heat shield did its job and provide data to implement future improvements. In addition, some of the data recorders were removed and sent to Lockheed facilities prior to Orion being loaded on a special truck for transportation to Kennedy, where it will be disassembled for a detailed study of its structure, computers and instrumentation.
Lockheed says that it will complete its assessment by March of next year and that the information will be used for future test flights. Orion's next test will be the Ascent Abort Test 2 of the capsule's launch escape system. Meanwhile, Lockheed is constructing a second Orion for the manned Exploration Mission-1 flight to be launched by the Space Launch System (SLS), which is scheduled for 2018.
"The 1,200 on-board sensors will provide us an ocean of information about everything from the effects of space radiation on our avionics to the environment inside the crew cabin," says Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager. "What we learn from this flight will improve Orion’s designs and technology, and help us make future vehicles the best they can be."
The video below shows Orion's splashdown as seen from the deck of the USS Anchorage.
Source: Lockheed Martin