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[Image above] Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will (eventually) control space travel through the craft’s glass cockpit. Credit: ReelNASA; YouTube

NASA’s Orion spacecraft successfully completed its first unmanned space jaunt earlier this month. Though it lasted only 4.5 hours while completing two earth orbits, the trip was an important milestone for eventually flinging humans far into deep space—whether to an asteroid, Mars, or a rift in the space-time continuum.

Regardless of where it will go, Orion is decked out in some pretty high-tech fashion. The spacecraft resembles the iconic cone-shaped Apollo craft, but its technology is new and improved. Here’s a snapshot of some of the new features.

1. Glass cockpit. Orion, once ready for its human companions, will eventually be equipped with a glass cockpit control system, according to NASA. The system boils down to panels of screens for controlling the craft, rather than an extensive array of the usual knobs, buttons, and levers.


Some manual controls will still be present, but a vast majority is eliminated with the glass cockpit design. Besides upping the craft’s spacey-look, the glass cockpit reduces weight by removing wires and switches, providing flexibility to the cockpit and control panel.


Watch NASA’s short video below to hear more about the sleek design from astronaut Lee Morin.

 Credit: ReelNASA; YouTube


2. Thermal management system. Upon reentry to earth, the craft will hurtle back through the atmosphere at 24,545 mph. Orion’s thermal protection system, fabricated by Lockheed Martin, is an elaborate one to protect it from the blistering temperatures that may reach up to 6,000°F. The entire base of the craft is covered in a composite heat shield wrapped in an ablative material called Avcoat—deposited in 320,000 cells in a fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb skin—that is designed to burn off to prevent heat build-up.


In addition, the shuttle’s backshell is covered in 970 high-tech black AETB-8 tiles. “Made of a low-density, high-purity silica fiber made rigid by ceramic bonding, the tiles will be called upon to protect the sides of Orion from temperatures up to 3,150°F (1,732°C) on this test,” NASA says.


Although the recent test flight didn’t reach speeds and temperatures as high as the craft eventually will experience during a longer mission, the test provides a good opportunity to see if the system holds up as expected. Lockheed Martin engineers are currently sampling the heat shield to assess how it held up during its inaugural space foray.

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Components of the Orion spacecraft assembly, including the black tile-covered crew module. Credit: NASA

3. Fold-out solar arrays. The space-soaring module—once in space—is completely powered by UltraFlex solar arrays, whose collected energy can be stored in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The two arrays on board consist of accordion-style-folded solar panels, each about 19 feet wide, that are made of high-efficiency, heat- and radiation-resistant gallium arsenide solar cells. Each panel can provide 6,000 W of power, “enough to power about six three-bedroom homes,” NASA says.

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One of the unfolded solar arrays that Orion will be equipped with. Credit: NASA

Download this pdf from NASA to read more about Orion and all its tech innovations. Or to read more about Orion’s first unmanned test flight, check out this one.