Video: Falling to Earth aboard NASA's Orion spacecraft

Enjoy a plasma light show in this NASA video of Orion plummeting back to Earth after a test flight

A NASA video lets you virtually peer out the window of the Orion spacecraft as it plummets to Earth at speeds up to 20,000 mph.

As you watch, you will see what an astronaut might see if she was ensconced in the capsule after traveling 3,600 miles from Earth.

The video was shot on Dec. 5, during an unmanned test flight that took the spacecraft around the planet twice. The flight was recorded by three video cameras positioned at the side and back windows of the spacecraft's crew module.

This particular video features the last 10 minutes of Orion's 4.5-hour journey to space. It begins just as the spacecraft reenters the Earth's atmosphere. The video ends when Orion lands with a splash in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California.

About 26 seconds into the video there is a dazzling light show in shades of white, yellow, lavender and magenta. The colors are caused by super-heated gas, or plasma, that gets created by the friction between the speeding spacecraft and the gases on the outer edge of our planet. The different colors are caused by increases and decreases in the temperature.

On this test flight, the plasma around the spacecraft got up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. An astronaut inside the capsule might notice the temperature start to climb a bit, but powerful heat shields on the outside of the spacecraft keep cabin temperatures from getting any higher than about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, said Brandi Dean, a NASA spokeswoman.

If the spacecraft were returning to Earth from Mars, however, it would be moving even faster, causing the gas around it to get up to 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

"There would be some modifications to the current heat shield, but Orion was designed with future deep-space missions in mind," Dean said.

After the light show is over (at about 2:28 into the video) there is a peaceful interlude when nothing much happens. You can see the curvature of the blue Earth meeting the dark black of space as the spacecraft glides across the planet. If this is boring to you, or you don't have much time, you can skip to 5:28, when the first of a series of parachutes start to deploy. The parachutes are attached to the heat shield, which detaches from the spacecraft before landing.

At 5:37, the drogue parachutes deploy. They look like daisies. At 6:34 into the video, these are cut away, and the main parachutes take over. They look like peppermint candies. In the last seconds of the video, you can see the spacecraft landing successfully in the ocean.

Since this video was taken, Orion has been returned, via truck, to its home base at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA has another test launch of the vehicle scheduled for 2018.

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