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Orion Spacecraft Splashes Down After High Orbit Test

The Orion spacecraft awaits its launch in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

NASA's unmanned Orion spacecraft has successfully splashed down about 400 miles west of La Paz, Mexico, in the Pacific Ocean after a liftoff, two orbits and reentry that lasted just under 4 1/2 hours.

Orion, which could one day take astronauts to Mars, made a "bullseye splashdown" at 11:29 a.m. ET, mission control said, after the spacecraft enduring a searing 4,000 degree Fahrenheit re-entry before being gently lowered to the ocean surface under four giant red-and-white parachutes.

Mission control called the first test of the capsule a "picture perfect" mission that had surmounted "significant milestones" for the program that could eventually pave the way for putting astronauts on the surface of the red planet.

As we reported, NASA scrubbed yesterday's launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla., because it could not resolve a number of technical issues. Today's launch went off without a hitch.

Here's some background:

"As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported earlier this week, Orion is expected to make two orbits at a distance of 3,600 miles from the Earth's surface on its second lap, before conducting a re-entry burn and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

"The flight is meant to validate the vehicle's basic systems, including avionics, heat shielding and parachutes.

"According to Geoff: 'It's designed for deep space, but Orion's first mission will be back to the neighborhood of the moon. The plan is to have a robot capture a small asteroid and drag it back to lunar orbit. Then Orion will carry up to four astronauts to meet it. It's all supposed to happen in the 2020s, though some say the mission is too complicated and not much of an advance.' "

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