Hopes for mission to Mars after safe test flight for Orion

Nasa’s new Orion spacecraft made a “bullseye” splashdown in the Pacific following a dramatic test flight.

The brief journey took it to a zenith height of 3,600 miles and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.

The unmanned test flight ended just four hours and 30 minutes after it began and achieved at least one record – flying farther and faster than any capsule built for humans since the Apollo moon programme.

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Nasa is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit, to asteroids and 
ultimately the grand prize of Mars.

“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water.

Mr Navies called the four-hour, 24-minute journey “the most perfect flight you could ever imagine”.

Nasa said the capsule’s computers were not affected by high radiation, one of the key questions they hoped to answer with the test.

Orion’s return was captured by an unmanned drone flying over the recovery zone, providing spectacular views of the descending capsule.

Helicopters then relayed images of the crew module bobbing in the water. Three of the five air bags deployed properly, enough to keep the capsule floating upright.

Orion’s brief flight yesterday will be used to test critical technologies, like its heat shield and parachutes.

The Delta IV-Heavy rocket roared off the pad at Cape Canaveral at 7.05am local time (12.05pm GMT). It threw the conical ship to 6,000km above the planet, to set up a fast re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, generating temperatures in the region of 2,000C, and allowing engineers to check that Orion’s thermal protection systems meet their specifications.

Orion is reminiscent of the Apollo command ships that took men to the Moon in the 60s and 70s, only bigger and with cutting-edge systems. It is being developed alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in 2017 or 2018.