NASA’s Orion spacecraft flew past the far side of the Moon on Monday, passing within 81 miles of the surface.
The spacecraft, which has no humans on board, has been heading for the moon since Wednesday, when it was launched as part of the Artemis I mission. Its journey will last another 20 days.
“The vehicle continues to perform exceptionally well,” NASA Orion program manager Howard Hu said at a press conference Monday evening.
One of the primary goals of the mission is to verify that the Orion spacecraft is performing as intended and to allow NASA to make any necessary adjustments and corrections before the astronauts board for the Artemis II mission, which will not lift off. before at least 2024. The third Artemis mission, involving the Orion spacecraft as well as a SpaceX vehicle, will aim to land astronauts on the surface of the moon.
Minutes before Orion’s closest pass with the moon on Monday, the capsule ignited its engine for 2.5 minutes. This accelerated its speed as the spacecraft swung into what is known as a far retrograde orbit.
The orbit is remote – 40,000 miles above the lunar surface; retrograde means the spacecraft is moving around the moon in the opposite direction to how the moon moves around the Earth.
The spacecraft will be there for six days, providing extended time for mission controllers to test Orion’s systems. NASA pointed out that it would be the farthest from Earth that any spacecraft designed to carry humans has ever been. (The previous record occurred during Apollo 13 when the crippled spacecraft had to swing around the moon for the return trip to Earth instead of entering orbit.)
Prior to the flyby, a camera on Orion provided sharp video of the moon growing larger as the spacecraft approached, capturing an Earth set – the small blue marble of Earth sliding behind the large gray disk of the moon in the foreground.
With Orion behind the moon, NASA mission controllers lost contact with the spacecraft, as expected. Thus, they were unaware that the engine firing was successful until Orion emerged again 34 minutes later.
The spacecraft demonstrated the ability to send live video back to Earth during the flyby, said NASA flight director Judd Frieling, who added that he would transmit more to a NASA website when possible. . The Orion also took video and images of the far side of the moon as it was out of contact behind the moon.
“It will take us a few days to get those particular images,” Mr. Frieling said.
Artemis I lifted off on Wednesday atop NASA’s new large Space Launch System rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Except for a few minor glitches – Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager, called them “funnies” – the Artemis I flight went smoothly. The funny ones understood that Orion’s star trackers were momentarily confused when the spacecraft’s thrusters fired.
“We’re on the sixth flight day of a 26-day mission,” Mr. Sarafin said on Monday, “so I’d give it a cautiously optimistic A+.”
The flyover exercised the major piece of Artemis that is not American. Parts of the Space Launch rocket were built by Boeing, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance, while the Orion capsule itself was built by Lockheed Martin.
However, the service module – the part of Orion below the capsule that houses thrusters, solar panels, communications equipment and other supplies – was built by Airbus and was one of the contributions of the European Space Agency in the Artemis program. The module will not return to Earth, but will be jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere shortly before the capsule falls.
On Friday, the service module’s thrusters will fire again to place Orion in the distant retrograde orbit. On Saturday, Orion will pass the Apollo 13 record of 248,655 miles from Earth for a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts; Next Monday, Orion will reach its maximum distance from Earth: nearly 270,000 miles.
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