A US spaceship designed to take astronauts to an asteroid and then Mars is due to blast off for its debut test flight later today.
The unmanned version of NASA’s Orion capsule should lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 12.05pm UK time.
A Delta IV Heavy rocket will power the capsule to a height of 3,600 miles, 15 times higher than the space station, before turning round to re-enter the atmosphere at 20,000mph.
Mark Geyer, program manager of Orion, said: “Really, we’re going to test the riskiest parts of the mission.
“Ascent, entry, plus the navigation and guidance – all those things are going to be tested.”
Orion has been rigged with 1,200 sensors that will monitor the craft on its four-and-a-half hour flight.
It will pass through the Earth’s radiation belt, a test for shields that should protect future astronauts in deep space.
The capsule’s performance will also be carefully assessed as it plunges through the atmosphere, heating up to 2,200C, before deploying 11 parachutes and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
“We want to discover things that are beyond our modelling capability and beyond our expertise so we learn and fix it,” said Mr Geyer.
Astronauts haven’t ventured beyond Earth’s orbit since the Apollo moon missions of the 1970s.
NASA aims to have finessed the capsule in time for human exploration of an asteroid in the 2020s. A mission to Mars is expected to follow in the 2030s… see more