NASA’s Orion spacecraft receives heat shield for bold test flight to the Moon

Engineers and technicians install the heat shield on NASA’s Orion spacecraft crew module on July 25, b-2018, on the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

(Kim Shiflett/NASA)

NASA’s Orion spacecraft — which will eventually carry people to locations outside of the low orbit around the Earth, like the moon, like its heat shield, for a test mission that will take place in 2019 or 2020. For this mission, Orion will also be a new block structure that will protect the spacecraft as a fiery re-entry into the atmosphere of the Earth.

Technicians recently bolted the heat shield on the Orion spacecraft at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, NASA officials said in a statement. This is just one of the steps for the preparation of the spacecraft for the Exploration Mission-1, an uncrewed Orion will fly for three weeks in space to a location of about 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the moon, before returning back to the Earth. [Exploration mission-1 in Pictures: How Orion Will Fly to the Moon]

The heat shield is 16.5 feet (5 meters) in diameter and has a complex structure to help it survive the searing heat of the atmosphere during the Orion dive back to the Earth. NASA expects Orion’s heat shield must withstand temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius).

The basic structure of the heat shield is a titanium structure covered with a composite substrate (or the skin) that has several layers of carbon fiber. But what makes this heat shield out is a new process that consists of blocks of an ablative material called Avcoat, which is produced under license from Boston on the basis of Textron Systems.

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Avcoat is used on the heat shields of other spacecraft, including the Apollo human moon missions of the 1960s and 1970s, and the last flight of Orion in 2014 (the so-called Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1). But this last mission is unique because engineers are the making blocks of material instead of injecting it directly on the heat shield. [The Orion Capsule leaves on the White House Lawn (Photos)]

“An advantage of enabling the honeycomb system of the blocks, we can now use the Avcoat blocks at the same time that the Orion structure is applied, when the module is ready, we can secure the blocks, this saves time,” John Kowal, Orion’s thermal protection system manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in the statement. “For the EFT-1, we had to wait for the carrier part to be done, and then apply the Avcoat directly to the crew of the module.”

The Avcoat was produced by Lockheed Martin at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, and then shipped to KSC. There, Lockheed Martin technicians formed of the material in 180 blocks and applied to the Orion heat-shield surface.

“The filling of small gaps between the blocks, the seams were filled with a mixture that over time more firmly,” NASA officials said in the statement. “Technicians who have a layer of white epoxy paint on the heat shield of the surface, and then used aluminized tape after the painted surface is dried. The tape provides surface resistivity, and absorbs the heat from the sun and infrared emissions.”

While this next Orion mission will have no crew on board of the NASA expected eventually with the help of the spacecraft to bring astronauts beyond a low Earth orbit. The next priority of the current U.S. presidential administration is to begin moon missions using a Deep Space Gateway space station. Ultimately, the bureau had to prepare for the human missions to Mars.

Orion, the contractor is Lockheed Martin, which designed and manufactured the spacecraft.

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