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What Astronauts Will See—But Not Hear—When They Return To Earth From Mars

NASA’s amazing Orion re-entry video—complete with “sci-fi” music: for those who prefer a 20,000-mph ride from the comfort of home.

This is what astronauts returning from Mars–and those who missed the ’60s–will see when they re-enter Earth.

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The hypnotic video–recorded through the crew module’s windows–was among the first data removed from the unmanned Orion capsule after its Dec. 5 test flight that lifted off from Cape Canaveral, FL and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 4.5 hours later after traveling 3,600 miles above Earth. It was the farthest journey of a human-spaceflight vehicle since 1972, when the last of NASA’s Apollo missions flew to the moon.

Unlike its real-time airing on NASA TV, this video shows all of the re-entry footage, beginning 10 minutes before splashdown, and including parts missed during the original downlink’s blackout, when atmospheric friction caused peak temperatures of 4,000 ºF temperatures. As the capsule hurtles through the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, the resulting trail of plasma changes color from white to yellow to lavender to magenta as temperatures increase. The camera also captures the elaborate parachute deployment that slowed Orion’s fall to a gingerly 20 mph for landing.

NASA, as part of a ramped-up effort to engage the public, added production flourishes to the nearly unedited video, long by social media standards, to keep viewer attention. On top of the captivating visuals, the moody drone music–an unusual touch for NASA–adds the sort of dramatic flourish that can help propel a science video into the Internet stratosphere.

“The audio in the video is composed of two stock pieces chosen for their sci-fi tone—”Drone for the Dying” and “Interstellar Spheres” by William Pearson—selected from Pond5,” which provides royalty-free media, says NASA spokesperson Rachel Kraft. “They were chosen by the producer, Rad Sinyak, who put together the video, and who has done many of the imagery and graphics associated with Orion.”

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Media check out Orion at Kennedy Space Center after its cross-country trek from Naval Base San DiegoNASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Now back at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers are analyzing data–like the behavior of the capsule’s computers and its heat and radiation shields–in preparation for a future Orion launch atop NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket, which will be the most powerful ever built.

That launch, scheduled for 2018, will take Orion on an unmanned mission to lunar orbit. In 2021, NASA hopes, astronauts will ride Orion to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, a mission that will investigate spacewalks far from Earth, new propulsion systems, and habitat modules that will attach to the Orion crew capsule, before returning to Earth at 11 km/s, the fastest re-entry ever.

That mission will prepare NASA and Orion for an eventual trip to Mars–and back. In 2010 Barack Obama visited NASA after canceling a $10 billion program to return Americans to the moon, and sketched a new vision for the space agency. “By the mid 2030s,” he said, “I believe we can send humans to orbit, Mars, and return them safely to Earth.”

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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