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Orion spacecraft’s solar array passes first major hurdle

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is one step closer to its planned deployment as a beyond low Earth orbit vessel. Airbus Defence and Space this week announced that it has successfully tested the solar array that will power Orion’s European Service Module (ESM). Built by Airbus for the European Space Agency, the ESM will serve as the primary power and propulsion source for the spacecraft.

The Orion spacecraft is classified as a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that is capable of carrying a crew of four astronauts and supplies beyond the Earth’s orbit. It will be used as a vehicle for Mars exploration, asteroid studies and even as a vehicle to replenish supplies and replace crew at the International Space Station. It comprises two modules — the Orion command module under development by Lockheed Martin, and the Orion Service Module being developed by the ESA and Airbus.

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The Service Module will provide critical life-support systems such as water and air storage, electric power, thermal control, and propulsion. It will be powered by a solar array weighing more than 570 pounds (260 kilograms) with four wings that can angle forward and backward like the wings of a bird. Each wing contains three solar panels with 1,242 Gallium Arsenide cells. In total, the 15,000 solar cells will generate up to 11.1kW for the Service Module’s operation.

The addition of this ESA-sourced service module marks the first time NASA has used a European-built system as an important component in the propulsion and power system of an American spacecraft. The solar array passed its first deployment test will flying colors. In the coming months, the module will be subjected to additional testing, including acoustic, vibration, and shock tests, to confirm the spacecraft can withstand the harsh conditions of space. If testing goes smoothly, the ESA hope to deliver its first ESM in early 2017.