Artemis 1 mission: NASA’s Orion spacecraft makes closest approach to the moon
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NASA’s Orion capsule passed about 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the lunar surface early Monday, a monumental achievement in the mission designed to test the US space agency’s ability to one day return astronauts to the moon.
After its flyby around the moon, Orion — which was designed to fly astronauts but only carried inanimate, learned payloads for its first mission — is expected to travel more than 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the Moon, the farthest distance a spacecraft designed to carry humans has ever traveled.
It’s all part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to eventually create a lunar outpost that can permanently host astronauts for the first time in history, with the hope of one day making its way to Mars.
The Artemis I mission launched last Wednesday morning when NASA’s besieged and long overdue The Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, lifted the Orion capsule into space, cementing the rocket as the most powerful operational launch vehicle ever built. The SLS rocket’s thrust exceeds that of the Saturn V rocket that powered the moon landings in the 20th century, by 15%.
Orion is now 25 and a half days into its journey around the moon.
Monday’s flyby of the lunar surface was the closest the Orion capsule will get to the moon before it enters a “far retrograde orbit,” meaning it will circle the moon in the opposite direction from which it The moon orbits the earth.
The trip is intended to “stress test” the Orion capsule, like Michael Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager, put it last week.
After orbiting the moon, the Orion capsule is expected to return to Earth and make a soft landing in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
The target landing site is just off the coast of San Diego, and NASA recovery ships will be waiting nearby to pull the spacecraft to safety, a practice for future missions that involve astronauts. And this time, they’ll also be looking to claw back a bit scientific instruments on board, who collected data to help NASA understand how astronauts might be affected by future flights.
Sarafin told reporters Friday that NASA had to work out more than a dozen “funny things” with the Orion capsule, but overall the spacecraft is performing “really well.”
One problem that arose was related to Orion’s star tracker, a system that uses a map of space to tell engineers on the ground how the spacecraft is oriented. Some data readings didn’t come back as expected, but NASA officials attributed that to the learning curve that comes with flying a new spacecraft.
“We overcame that and there was great leadership from the Orion team,” Sarafin said.
“We had an understanding of the mission-oriented system,” he added. “We’ve had (forecasts) — whether it’s how much energy we’re going to use, how much fuel or how hot the vehicle is going to be — and we’re not exactly meeting that. And in most cases it performs better.
“We’re seeing things that don’t quite match our predictions. And the team is taking the time to go through that with a fine-toothed comb to make sure there’s not something else in there that’s potentially a hidden problem.”
Sarafin’s comments came before NASA made the final decision Saturday to put the Orion spacecraft on track to enter its far-flung retrograde orbit around the moon.