After a slight hiccup on Thursday, humanity's plan to colonize the universe will continue today.
Last Thursday, NASA planned to conduct an unmanned test launch of their new Orion rocket system. Unfortunately, due to high winds and a technical issue, the launch was postponed until today - Friday December 5th.
The Orion Mission
The mission will only last 4 and a half hours and is designed to test the Orion under real (out of this) world conditions. Orion's Delta IV-rocket will blast the ship into orbit at a height of 3,600 miles, before setting in on a course east across the Atlantic. It will then lap the Earth twice, before releasing the command capsule and splashing back down in the Pacific. During reentry, the capsule is expected to generate temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees celsius and speeds of up to 20,000 mph.
Although, one of the main aims of the mission is to test the craft's thermal protection systems, NASA will also be seeing if the Orion can aid development of a new rocket system - the Space Launch System (SLS) - which could potentially take humanity to new planets. The cabin will also be filled with 1,200 sensors in order to assess whether it can safely transport humans.
A Mission to Mars?
Earlier this week, NASA announced it was officially hatching a new plan to put human feet on the ground on Mars. First, Orion would lead the way in several missions which will attempt to place four astronauts on asteroids between Earth and Mars. They hope to achieve this by 2025, with an attempt to land on Mars taking place around the mid-2030s.
Of course, landing on Mars isn't exactly the same as landing on the Moon. Firstly, the distances involved are much, much greater. The distance between Earth and the Moon is 'only' 238,855 miles, however the closest possible distance between Earth and Mars is a staggering 33.9 million miles.
What Are The Issues?
Estimates for how long this journey would take are somewhere in the realm of 150-300 days - depending on the speed of the launch. This, of course, presents more problems. Currently, most astronauts aboard the International Space Station only stay in space for around six months. Upon returning to Earth, they must then spend months rehabilitating their muscles which waste away in the zero gravity of space.
This isn't a huge problem for ISS astronauts as they can be supported on their return. However, for the Mars mission crew things will be different as presumably they would have to conduct strenuous work after landing on Mars. Several theories have been suggested for overcoming this. In particular, a British team suggested imparting spin on the craft to create artificial gravity via centrifugal forces.
Currently, Orion and SLS are expected to provide the core technological capabilities to get to the Red Planet, but as the above suggests there's a long way to go - both figuratively and literally.
UPDATE: As of the time of writing, Orion has successfully launched and is currently orbiting Earth. Below is an image showing Orion's service module detaching:
Do you think there'll be men on Mars before the end of this century?
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