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.
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.
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.