Washington, Dec 6: The US space agency marked a major milestone on its mission to Mars as the Orion spacecraft completed its first voyage to space Friday - travelling farther than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has been in more than 40 years.
"Today's flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.
The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years, he added.
Following a perfect launch and more than four hours in Earth's orbit, NASA's Orion spacecraft made a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.
Orion blazed into the morning sky lifting off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.
During the uncrewed test, Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen belt where it experienced high periods of radiation, and reached an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth.
Orion also hit speeds of 20,000 miles per hour and weathered temperatures approaching 2,204 degrees Celsius as it entered Earth's atmosphere.
Orion will open the space between Earth and Mars for exploration by astronauts.
This will be invaluable for testing capabilities future human Mars missions will need, NASA said in a statement.
On future missions, Orion will launch on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket currently being developed at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
A 70 metric-tonne SLS will send Orion to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon on Exploration Mission-1 in the first test of the fully integrated Orion and SLS system.
"We really pushed Orion as much as we could to give us real data that we can use to improve Orion's design going forward," said Mark Geyer, Orion programme manager.
"In the coming weeks and months, we will be taking a look at that invaluable information and applying lessons learned to the next Orion spacecraft already in production for the first mission atop the Space Launch System rocket," he added.