This Special Paint Will Help NASA's Next Spacecraft Stay Cool

Orion spacecraft

NASA on Thursday evening released conceptual images of its Orion spacecraft featuring a new, metallic-based coating that will protect the vehicle both in orbit and during its fiery return to Earth.

On the surface the two space capsules look the same - they are cone-shaped, and have a large heat shield to protect the astronauts from the intense conditions during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.

As the agency explains, "Orion's thermal protection system is one of the most critical parts of the spacecraft and is responsible for protecting it and the future astronauts it will carry home from deep space destinations".

"As we move towards 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", said John Kowal, NASA's thermal protection system lead for Orion.

Other changes to the thermal protection system are aimed at improving the performance of the heat shield while reducing Orion's total mass.

Orion spacecraft re-entry
An illustration of the Orion spacecraft returning to Earth with the silver metallic-based thermal control coating. Image via NASA

This coating will reduce heat loss when Orion experiences colder temperatures, and limit high temperatures from when the spacecraft faces the Sun. The silvery material, which is similar to what's used in the main heat shield, will be bonded to the back shell tiles. The space agency said the paint would save energy that would otherwise be spent on keeping the craft's interior warm.

The vehicle will be in space for more than three weeks for the mission and then return to Earth at speeds of 36,000 feet per second.

An uncrewed prototype went through its first flight test last December.