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Orion spacecraft makes first test flight, in a small step toward Mars

NASA's four-hour trial run was designed to test equipment that may one day carry humans to an asteroid and eventually to the Red Planet.

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The Delta 4 rocket carrying Orion blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Orion, a NASA spacecraft designed to launch a new era of space exploration and eventually take humans to Mars, has made its first test-flight journey.

The space expedition, which was set to take place Thursday but was delayed due to adverse weather and technical issues, launched Friday at 4:05 a.m. PT/7:05 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Orion returned to Earth just over four hours later, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

On its test flight, Orion went aloft to test critical on-board systems such as heat shields, which must be able to withstand temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It also was to take measurements on radiation exposure and put its parachutes through their paces when on its return through the atmosphere, after having orbited Earth twice.

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The metal objects being jettisoned here are fairing panels, which provided structural support during the early phases of Orion's launch. NASA

While there were no lifeforms aboard the current expedition, it's hoped that the Orion craft will one day carry up to four astronauts to far-flung astronomical locales -- most notably, Mars. In the nearer future, NASA intends to send Orion on an uncrewed mission around the moon within the next few years, and the goal is to launch astronauts aboard the spacecraft in 2021.

With their eventual Orion missions, astronauts will be headed beyond low-earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo moon missions ended in the early 1970s. The many subsequent crewed missions aboard NASA's space shuttles and Russian rockets, as well as the International Space Station, have all remained close to the home planet.

"Orion will open the space between Earth and Mars for exploration by astronauts," says a NASA document describing the spacecraft's purpose. "This proving ground will be invaluable for testing capabilities future human Mars missions will need. The area around our moon, in particular, called cis-lunar space, is a rich environment for testing human exploration needs, like advanced spacewalking suits, navigating using gravity, and protecting astronauts from radiation and extreme temperatures."

By about 2025, before any Mars mission, Orion is expected to carry astronauts to an asteroid that a separate program will, remarkably, put into orbit around the moon. NASA envisions the journey to Mars taking place in the 2030s.

In Friday morning's launch, Orion, which packs 1.63 million pounds of fuel, spacecraft and gear, rode a massive Delta IV Heavy rocket into space. That's the largest rocket the US has available.

By three hours later, Orion had flown just over 3,600 miles above Earth -- approximately 15 times higher than the International Space Station. It faced intense temperatures as its re-entry began at a nerve-jangling 20,000 mph, before eventually settling down to a much more staid 20 mph under 11 parachutes. Splashdown took place in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles southwest of San Diego, Calif. Ships of the US Navy are handling the recovery of the spacecraft.

Here is NASA's live feed of the mission.

It's been an interesting few weeks for space exploration. Last month the European Space Agency made history by settling the Philae lander on the surface of a comet.

Updated throughout the morning with background and with details of the splashdown. CNET's Amanda Kooser contributed to this report.