Nasa releases plans for the Orion space capsule’s first mission as it prepares to head to Mars6 min read

It will eventually be the spacecraft that carries humans to an asteroid and even to Mars, but the first big test of Nasa’s Orion space capsule will be to fly 43,000 miles beyond the Moon and back.

The spacecraft is currently being developed by the US space agency to enable it to send crews into space again – something it has not been able to do since the end of the Space Shuttle programme.

The development of Orion has helped reawakened some of the atmosphere of exploration that surrounded Nasa during the Apollo missions that first landed mankind on the moon.

But with almost exactly 42 years between the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, which launched on 7 December 1972, and the first flight of Orion, the technology has moved on considerably.

On the surface the two space capsules look the same – they are cone-shaped, and have a large heat shield to protect the astronauts from the intense conditions during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

However, Orion is larger, capable of carrying four crew members rather than Apollo’s three. It will also have to carry far more supplies than Apollo ever did.

Orion's unmanned Exploration Mission 1 (illustrated at launch( will fly Nasa's new capsule 43,000 miles (70,000 km) beyond the Moon and then return to Earth. The unmanned mission will pave the way for later crewed missions using the vehicle in 2023 and eventually missions to Mars

Orion’s unmanned Exploration Mission 1 (illustrated at launch( will fly Nasa’s new capsule 43,000 miles (70,000 km) beyond the Moon and then return to Earth. The unmanned mission will pave the way for later crewed missions using the vehicle in 2023 and eventually missions to Mars

The last Apollo mission saw a two man crew spend just three days on the moon’s surface while a mission to an asteroid or to Mars could see astronauts spending up to 450 days in space.

Like the Apollo Command Module, Orion has a Service Module attached that houses a single large engine, batteries and storage.

However, Orion will carry a pair of solar arrays to help keep the capsule powered in space – technology that Apollo did not use.

Orion also uses up-to-date computers, electronics, life support and propulsion systems. The electronics also have a far more sophisticated radiation shielding than the Apollo modules.

Nasa has also used some hard lessons to improve the heat shield. Measuring 16.5 feet (five metres) across, it is the largest heat shield ever built for a spacecraft and has been covered in a new material called Avcoat.

Nasa has also improved the parachutes, once used to land the Apollo spacecraft and slow the Space Shuttle, to help Orion land more safely in the water when it splashes down after a mission.

A new video, released by Nasa, has now revealed exactly how Orion’s first major trip into space, scheduled for 2018, will unfold.

Orion’s Exploration Mission 1 will be flown without a crew and instead will be controlled remotely as it flies 43,000 miles (70,000 km) beyond the Moon.

Nasa’s contractor Lockheed Martin is currently building the spaceship at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

The capsule – measuring 16ft in diametre – will be attached to a European-made ‘service module’, a key component that provides in-space propulsion and energy.

When everything is ready, in November 2018, the spacecraft will laucn on top of Nasa’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, in the first test of the biggest rocket ever built, from pad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.

The video shows how the spacecraft will extend solar arrays measuring 62 feet (19m) once it reaches low Earth Orbit to help provide power for the spacecraft.

It will then set course for the Moon by firing its interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) – a liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen-based system which has never been used before.

Orion will then perform a flyby of the Moon, harnessing the satellite’s gravity to gain speed and propel itself to what is called ‘distant retrograde orbit’ (DRO), thousands of miles beyond the moon and almost half a million km from Earth.

The craft will then burn its main engine – a manoeuvring system left over from the defunct Space Shuttle programme – to leave the DRO and head back.

On its return trip, Orion will do another flyby of the Moon and start approaching Earth.

Just outside Earth’s atmosphere, the crew capsule will detach from the service module and other parts of the craft, before initiating re-entry and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

In this final part of the three-week-long trip, as shown in the video, the capsule will be ensured a safe landing by three parachutes.

Nasa has been conducting several parachute tests over the last months. In August it even dropped a capsule model attached to some purposefully flawed parachutes in the middle of the Arizona desert.

The simulated botch was intended to test whether the crew module would survive in case of parachute malfunctioning.

In fact, despite the parachutes failing, Orion landed gently on the desert floor.

Orion's 2018 Exploration Mission 1 will involve a circumnavigation of Earth and two Moon flybys. Pictured in this graphic, all the steps of the three-week mission

Orion’s 2018 Exploration Mission 1 will involve a circumnavigation of Earth and two Moon flybys. Pictured in this graphic, all the steps of the three-week mission

As part of the test, engineers also studied a change to the risers, which connect the parachutes to the vehicle from steel to a textile material as well as the use of lighter weight suspension lines for several of the parachutes.

Luckily even if the parachutes were to eventually fail, nobody would get hurt in Exploration Mission 1’s unmanned capsule.

However, in April 2023, Nasa expects to conduct Exploration Mission 2 following the same route but carrying four crew members.

A third mission planned for 2026 will use a manned spacecraft to land on a small asteroid previously captured with a robotic arm.

From there, things can only get bolder – Orion was conceived as the craft that would enable humans to finally explore Mars in the 2030s.

HOW DOES ORION COMPARE TO APOLLO 17?

A 'new Apollo'? Orion bears a strong resemblance to the Apollo command module that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in 1969, but it is bristling with the latest technology

A ‘new Apollo’? Orion bears a strong resemblance to the Apollo command module that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in 1969, but it is bristling with the latest technology

The development of Orion has helped reawakened some of the atmosphere of exploration that surrounded Nasa during the Apollo missions that first landed mankind on the moon.

But with almost exactly 42 years between the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, which launched on 7 December 1972, and the first flight of Orion, the technology has moved on considerably.

On the surface the two space capsules look the same – they are cone-shaped, and have a large heat shield to protect the astronauts from the intense conditions during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

However, Orion is larger, capable of carrying four crew members rather than Apollo’s three. It will also have to carry far more supplies than Apollo ever did.

The last Apollo mission saw a two man crew spend just three days on the moon’s surface while a mission to an asteroid or to Mars could see astronauts spending up to 450 days in space.

Like the Apollo Command Module, Orion has a Service Module attached that houses a single large engine, batteries and storage.

However, Orion will carry a pair of solar arrays to help keep the capsule powered in space – technology that Apollo did not use.

Orion also uses up-to-date computers, electronics, life support and propulsion systems. The electronics also have a far more sophisticated radiation shielding than the Apollo modules.

Nasa has also used some hard lessons to improve the heat shield. Measuring 16.5 feet (five metres) across, it is the largest heat shield ever built for a spacecraft and has been covered in a new material called Avcoat.

Nasa has also improved the parachutes, once used to land the Apollo spacecraft and slow the Space Shuttle, to help Orion land more safely in the water when it splashes down after a mission.

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Sebastien Clarke

Astronaut is dedicated to bringing you the latest news, reviews and information from the world of space, entertainment, sci-fi and technology. With videos, images, forums, blogs and more, get involved today & join our community!
Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

Astronaut is dedicated to bringing you the latest news, reviews and information from the world of space, entertainment, sci-fi and technology. With videos, images, forums, blogs and more, get involved today & join our community!

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