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Orion: Nasa’s $5bn spacecraft in need of a mission

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Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Next generation
    In development since 2005, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will be America’s next manned spacecraft. (Nasa)
  • Take off
    Orion will be launched on the Space Launch System, which features components evolved from those used in the Space Shuttle’s booster system. (Nasa)
  • Test phase
    The programme has been long drawn-out, but the first working prototype of the crew capsule has been built and is about to enter an intensive period of testing. (Nasa)
  • Space explorer
    Resembling a larger Apollo capsule, Orion will carry its crew on long duration missions into orbit and beyond. (Lockheed Martin)
  • Crowded cabin
    The Crew Module in Orion houses four astronauts for deep-space missions. (Nasa)
  • Suited up
    The Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) is fully integrated with Orion life support systems and will be used by crews for ascent and entry. (Nasa)
  • Into orbit
    Next year, its first flight test will travel 3,600 miles into space – 15 times higher than the International Space Station – before returning to Earth. (Nasa)
Nasa's replacement for the Space Shuttle may have been in development for almost 10 years but there’s still one problem: no-one quite knows what it is for.

Every organisation needs an ideas person. A maverick thinker. Someone who not only thinks outside the box, but who considers replacing it altogether. For Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight Programme, that person is Josh Hopkins, the company’s Space Exploration Architect.

“My role is to think big picture thoughts about what kinds of exploration missions America and its international partners should be doing,” Hopkins explains. “I am focused on human exploration, but also how that overlaps with robotic spacecraft.”

Hopkins may have the world’s coolest job title but he has also got a problem. Or, as he would probably prefer to put it, an exciting challenge: Orion, America’s replacement for the Space Shuttle.

It’s not the delays and overruns besetting the $5 billion project that are exercising Hopkins. Nor is it the multiple redesigns to the spacecraft since President Bush gave the plan the go-ahead in 2004. The problem is that no-one quite knows what Orion is for.

Resembling a supersized Apollo capsule, Orion will carry a human crew of four on long duration missions into orbit and beyond. The programme has been one of the most drawn-out in the history of human spaceflight, but it is finally starting to come together. The first working prototype of the crew capsule has been built by Lockheed Martin and is about to enter an intensive period of testing, before an unmanned flight, currently slated for late next year.

When the Orion programme was first conceived a decade ago, the spacecraft was destined to take astronauts back to the Moon. Today, Nasa’s goals are so shifting and ill-defined that it could end up heading for the Moon or a (yet-to-be-identified) asteroid. Orion could be sent into deep space or simply be used to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This is a spacecraft in search of a mission.

“To some extent that’s true,” admits Hopkins, “and it has some obvious disadvantages, but it also has some advantages in that we can design the spacecraft to be flexible and have lots of different options for what we can do.”

As well as Nasa’s current plans for a mission to an asteroid, these options include some highly innovative ideas. “We’re looking at missions that could orbit the Moon and have astronauts control rovers on the lunar far side, that nobody’s ever explored before,” says Hopkins.

Mission impossible?

Combining the benefits of human exploration with the convenience, safety and economy of robotics is a compelling idea. It would be considerably easier, cheaper and safer than landing humans on the lunar surface. Parked in their Orion capsule in lunar orbit, astronauts would be able to operate the rovers like remote control cars, deciding where they should go in real-time. Nasa astronaut Chris Cassidy recently tested the theory, successfully controlling a rover in a simulated moonscape on Earth from the ISS.

“It’s different from how we traditionally control a rover, where you’ve got maybe a hundred people on Earth taking a long time to decide what to do” says Hopkins. “In this scenario we have one or two astronauts making more real-time decisions.”

However, as the communications time delay between the Earth and the Moon is only around two seconds (there and back), you could just as easily control a rover from Earth. In fact the Soviet Union operated a couple of its lunar rovers this way more than 40 years ago. Where this technology really starts to make sense is for destinations much further away.

“The big advantage of doing this at the Moon,” says Hopkins, “is that it’s a way to practice doing this for Mars.”

Hopkins says that controlling rovers in almost-real-time would revolutionise Mars exploration. “What you might do for the first Mars missions is have the astronauts orbit Mars and land on one of its tiny moons – Phobos or Deimos – and from there they can control rovers on the Martian surface,” he explains. “The people who operate the rovers on Mars today talk about the fact that a professional geologist could do in one minute what it takes a rover a day to do, so you explore much more effectively if you got rid of that huge time delay.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that this mission is possible with existing technology. Landing on Phobos is relatively easy compared with landing and leaving the surface of Mars, and well within the capabilities of an Orion spacecraft fitted with landing gear or anchors. Phobos is so small (only around 15 km across) that it has practically no gravitational field, which means you could land and take off using standard rocket thrusters. Mars, on the other hand, would require some serious rockets and several tonnes of fuel to fire them.

What’s more, by landing on a Martian moon rather than simply staying in orbit around the planet, you have a ready-made radiation shield. “If you land your spacecraft on one of these Moons, it is blocking half the sky from radiation,” says Hopkins. “You could potentially use the sandy soil there to cover up your spacecraft and provide even more radiation shielding.”

The other advantage, of course, is that you can investigate the moons themselves. Scientists want to discover whether Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids that Mars pulled into its orbit or whether they were blasted off the surface of the planet by cosmic impact. There might even, adds Hopkins, be some useful resources there. “Perhaps we can make liquid oxygen rocket propellant on those moons and then we wouldn’t have to bring it all the way from Earth.”

There are a lot of “ifs”, “maybes” and “possibles” in these concepts but, if one of them was adopted, it would give the Orion programme a more compelling ambition than the current vague notions of vague missions to vague asteroids.

With Orion counting down to its first launch, Nasa is close to regaining the deep space capabilities it once had with Apollo. What the agency needs now is a clear plan as to how it intends to use its shiny new spacecraft. A mission to Phobos would be an endeavour with sound scientific purpose that would catch the popular imagination.

That’s why thinking outside the box is sometimes not enough. It might be time to get a new box altogether.

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