Orion space capsule off-loaded from USS Anchorage in San Diego - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Orion space capsule off-loaded from USS Anchorage in San Diego

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SAN DIEGO (CNS/CBS8) - A space capsule that might be used for a manned flight to Mars was off-loaded Monday night from the amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage, which recovered it from the Pacific Ocean following a test flight.

The Orion was launched Friday morning from Florida's Cape Canaveral in Florida to about 3,600 miles into the Earth's orbit. Though the capsule was unmanned for the test flight, officials said the Orion could carry people to deep space someday.

During the 4 1/2-hour flight, Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen belt, where it experienced high periods of radiation.

The capsule hit speeds of 20,000 mph and weathered temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it entered Earth's atmosphere, according to NASA. It splashed down 600 miles southwest of San Diego, where it was retrieved by the Anchorage.

Engineers will use data collected during the flight to improve Orion's design, the space agency said. The flight tested Orion's heat shield, avionics, parachutes, computers and key spacecraft separation events, exercising many of the systems critical to the safety of astronauts who will travel in Orion.

The next test isn't expected until 2017, and Orion's first manned mission -- to an asteroid orbiting the moon -- could be seven years away, according to Space.com.

The last time a NASA vehicle that could carry people traveled so far into space was in 1972 with the last of the agency's Apollo moon missions. Since then, NASA has only launched craft designed to carry crew just a few hundred miles from Earth.

From San Diego, the Orion space capsule will be transported back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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