NASA Orion capsule rounded the moon todaymarking a crucial milestone in a week-long Artemis 1 mission that is paving the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.
As the uncrewed spacecraft maneuvered for its powered-out flyby, it sent a Spectacular set of images. showing the moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield, and a tiny blue Earth setting below the lunar horizon.
Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt “dizzy” when they watched the images come down.
“They are happy that all the hard work and dedication that they have put in over the years, many, many, many years is really paying off,” he told reporters.
Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was proceeding “without concerns” apart from some failures in its power system and its star trackers.
Today’s 2.5 minute engine start, which occurred five days after the Launch of Artemis 1, sent Orion as close to the moon as 81 miles. At the time of closest approach, the spacecraft approached the lunar surface at a speed of more than 5,000 mph. Orion was out of contact with Earth for about 34 minutes as it flew behind the moon.
Another maneuver, scheduled for Friday, will put the spacecraft in what is known as distant retrograde orbit, extending 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Such an orbit would be the farthest from Earth that a spacecraft designed to carry humans has flown during its mission. (Some commenters noted that the Apollo 10 Lunar Ascent Modulewhich was jettisoned in 1969 and is now orbiting the sun, is further away.)
Orion was in darkness during today’s closest approach, so there was no opportunity to capture views of the Apollo landing sites as it flew. But Sarafin promised that NASA will launch more great photos – once they are offloaded from the spacecraft and cleared for distribution. NASA also established a video streaming channel to present live images of Artemis 1 when available.
The views could be even better when Orion approaches the Moon again on December 1. 5, during the maneuver for its return to Earth. That trajectory should send the spacecraft over the Apollo sites in daylight.
This uncrewed Artemis 1 mission is meant to test equipment and procedures to be used in 2024 or so for the Artemis 2 mission, which would send a crew of astronauts around the moon. Artemis 2, in turn, would set the stage for a crewed lunar landing, currently scheduled for late 2025. That would be the first such landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Three mannequins sit inside the Artemis 1 capsule, hooked up with sensors that monitor temperature, radiation exposure and other factors during the flight.
The capsule also has a Alexa-style voice assistant, codenamed Callisto, which was created by Amazon in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Cisco. During future deep-space flights, something like Callisto could provide a feed for information and videoconferencing, as well as a kind of HAL-like companion for crews who might be losing real-time contact with people on Earth.
“We’ve had a couple of live technology evaluations of the Callisto payload, and it’s doing very well across the board,” said Howard Hu, who is the Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center. “We’re getting good images and good communications, thanks to Judd’s team allocating some bandwidth. Right now, based on those sessions, things are looking pretty good with that payload.”
Orion is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 1. 11, closing the Artemis 1 mission.
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