NASA Engineers Refine Thermal Protection System for Orion’s Mars Mission

Orion Spacecraft Re-Entering Earth's Atmosphere

Any spacecraft entering the deep space should endure the extremely hot and fast journey from deep space back to Earth,  and NASA’s Orion can withstand the heat now, thanks to a new Orion’s thermal protection system developed.

Orion’s thermal protection system is one of the most critical parts responsible for protecting it and to carry the future astronauts to and fro space destinations. It consists of the spacecraft’s main heat shield that faces into the atmosphere on reentryOrion Spacecraft in Orbit to slow the spaceship down and also the grid of tiles known as the back shell.

To be used in Orion’s next mission atop the agency’s Space Launch System rocket, called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), the spacecraft will be in space for more than three weeks and return to Earth under even faster and hotter conditions than during its last flight.

“Orion’s thermal protection system is essential to successful future missions,” said John Kowal of NASA. “As we move toward building the system for EM-1, we’ve been able to take advantage of what we learned from building and flying Orion to refine our processes going forward.”

During EM-1, Orion will have to endure a more intense re-entry environment at speeds of 30,000 feet per second during Exploration Flight Test-1 and temperatures of approximately 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It will experience a faster return from lunar velocity of about 36,000 feet per second. Since the heating the vehicle sees increases exponentially as the speed increases, the work engineering teams across the country are doing prepares Orion’s heat shield to perform re-entry during any of missions planned near the moon or in high lunar orbit (NASA’s “Proving Ground”) in the coming years.

For these future Orion missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will also be bonded to the crew module’s thermal protection system back shell tiles. The coating, similar to what is used on the main heat shield, will reduce heat loss during phases when Orion is pointed to space and therefore experiencing cold temperatures, as well as limit the high temperatures the crew module will be subjected to when the spacecraft faces the sun.

The coating will help Orion’s back shell maintain a temperature range from approximately -150 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit prior to entry and also will protect against electrical surface charges in space and during re-entry.


NASA’s prime contractor for Orion, Lockheed Martin, recently completed a heat shield manufacturing development unit that engineers will use to verify the improved manufacturing process before it is used on hardware for flight. Teams have already begun building Orion’s heat shield for EM-1.

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