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Orion design
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion capsule in flight, with a silvery, metallic-based coating bonded to the capsule’s back shell tiles. (Credit: NASA)

NASA has released new artwork that reflects the latest look for its Orion deep-space crew vehicle – and it’s highly reflective.

Orion’s shiny back shell isn’t just for show: In Thursday’s update, NASA explains that the silvery, metallic-based thermal control coating is designed to reduce heat loss when the spacecraft is pointed toward the dark chill of outer space, and limit high temperatures when it’s exposed to the sun.

“You’re trying to hit this sweet spot because when you’re looking at the sun, you don’t want to get too hot, and then when you’re not looking at the sun and instead in darkness, you don’t want to lose all the heat that the spacecraft generates,” John Kowal, NASA’s thermal protection system lead for Orion, explained in the update.

The coating should help Orion’s exterior maintain a temperature range between 150 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and 550 degrees above. It will also protect against electrical surface charges in space and during re-entry, NASA said.

Orion re-entry
NASA artwork shows Orion during atmospheric re-entry.

Other changes to the thermal protection system are aimed at improving the performance of the heat shield while reducing Orion’s total mass. An uncrewed prototype went through its first flight test last December. The next test, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, is due to take place in 2018. That flight will mark the first launch of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System. Orion will take an autonomous three-week trip that’s due to range beyond the moon – and end with a screaming re-entry at more than 24,500 mph.

EM-1’s re-entry requires a more robust thermal protection system than the one used for the previous Orion prototype, which explains the design changes. The test in 2018 will set the stage for the first crewed Orion-SLS flight, EM-2, which is targeted for no earlier than 2023. EM-2 may involve a round-the-moon trip and an asteroid rendezvous.

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