The Orion spacecraft will launch on its first unmanned mission to Mars Thursday. Reuters

NASA is taking its first steps toward putting a man on Mars. Its Orion spacecraft will launch Thursday at approximately 9:44 a.m. EST as a test for future missions to the red planet. The unmanned expedition is a trial to determine whether the Orion can endure the effects of space radiation.

The craft will use the Delta IV rocket to boost it into orbit. NASA said it will use the Space Launch System mega rocket, which is currently in development, on future missions. While in space, Orion will orbit Earth twice with the aim of getting to a maximum attitude of 3,600 miles. While reentering Earth’s atmosphere, Orion will take on speeds as high as 20,000 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near the coast of Baja, Mexico.

The test orbit will last approximately five hours. The launch was supposed to take place at 7:05 a.m. but has been delayed several times due to strong winds. Currently, the launch is expected to take place at 9:44 a.m.

NASA’s ultimate goal is to have humans on the Orion spacecraft in a mission to Mars by 2030, but even this test is considered a major advancement in American space exploration. The test launch is funded by Lockheed Martin Corp., which has invested $370 million in the mission.

Though Mars is Earth’s closest neighbor, the red desert planet is an extremely harsh environment. It has nearly no atmosphere and constant, below-freezing temperatures, which are not hospitable to humans. However, Mars was once a vibrant, water-rich planet like Earth, according to scientists.

NASA hopes a manned mission to Mars will uncover more secrets about the planet, including how it became the freezing wasteland it now is, and whether Earth faces the same future.

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