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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 August 2006, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Nasa names new spacecraft 'Orion'
Crew Exploration Vehicle, Nasa
Orion will make its first flight no later than 2014
US space agency Nasa has named its new manned exploration craft Orion.

The vehicle is being developed to take human space explorers back to the Moon and potentially then on to Mars.

It is hoped the name Orion could eventually mean as much for manned space exploration as Apollo did in the 1960s and 1970s.

Its first manned flight - to the International Space Station - will take place no later than 2014 and its first flight to the Moon no later than 2020.

"One of the things we get into at Nasa is we run around and call things by technical names and acronyms," project manager Skip Hatfield said. "This allows us to have an identity that we can use." Orion is named after one of the brightest, most familiar and easily identifiable constellations of stars in the sky.

One small slip for man

The name surfaced on a website last month, but Nasa was trying to keep it out of general circulation until 31 August, when it plans to select either Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman/Boeing to build the spacecraft that replaces the shuttle fleet.

Crew Exploration Vehicle, Nasa
The vehicle borrows from the Apollo era
US astronaut Jeff Williams, floating 354km (220 miles) above Earth at the ISS, was taping a message in advance for the space agency that was transmitted accidentally over space-to-ground radio.

"We've been calling it the crew exploration vehicle for several years, but today it has a name - Orion," he said.

Orion will be 5m (16.5ft) in diameter and have a mass of about 25 tonnes. Inside, it will have more than 2.5 times the volume of an Apollo capsule.

The spacecraft will return humans to the Moon to stay for long periods as a testing ground for the longer journey to Mars.

Reliable shape

The vehicle will be capable of transporting cargo and up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station. It can carry four astronauts for lunar missions. Later, it is expected to support crew transfers for Mars missions.

Orion borrows its shape from the Apollo capsules of the past, but Nasa says giant leaps have since been made in computer technology, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems.

Nasa considers the capsule's conical shape to be the safest and most reliable for re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, especially at the velocities required for a direct return from the Moon.

The crew exploration vehicle will replace the space shuttle programme after it comes out of service in 2010.

Earlier this summer, Nasa announced the names of the rockets that will propel into orbit the crew exploration vehicle and a cargo vehicle. These launchers will be called Ares I and Ares V respectively.

Infographic, BBC
(1) A heavy-lift rocket blasts off from Earth carrying a lunar lander and a "departure stage"
(2) Several days later, astronauts launch on a separate rocket system with their Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)
(3) The CEV docks with the lander and departure stage in Earth orbit and then heads to the Moon
(4) Having done its job of boosting the CEV and lunar lander on their way, the departure stage is jettisoned
(5) At the Moon, the astronauts leave their CEV and enter the lander for the trip to the lunar surface
(6) After exploring the lunar landscape for seven days, the crew blasts off in a portion of the lander
(7) In Moon orbit, they re-join the waiting robot-minded CEV and begin the journey back to Earth
(8) On the way, the service component of the CEV is jettisoned. This leaves just the crew capsule to enter the atmosphere
(9) A heatshield protects the capsule; parachutes bring it down on dry land, probably in California

Nasa plans return to Moon by 2020
19 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
Q&A: Nasa's new Moon plans
20 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
Moon plan 'comes up short'
20 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature

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