NASA’s Orion capsule makes a farewell flyby of the Moon
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The historic Artemis I mission, which sent an unmanned spacecraft on an unprecedented journey around the Moon, is now on the final leg of its historic journey.
Orion, as NASA’s new space capsule is called, made another trip past the moon’s surface on Monday morning, capturing views of notable lunar sites, including a pair Apollo landing sites. The spacecraft then passed just 80 miles (128.7 kilometers) above the lunar surface second close flyby on the moon.
Orion then ignited its main engine for about three and a half minutes — the longest burn conducted on its journey so far. An engine burnout sent the capsule on its final journey home, beginning the final leg of its 25-and-a-half-day journey.
The Artemis I mission launched on November 16, when NASA’s besieged and long overdue The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket lifted the Orion capsule into space, cementing its status 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 separated from the rocket after reaching space and has been traveling around the moon ever since. About a week ago, the capsule entered a so-called “far retrograde orbit” around the moon, allowing it to swing more than 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers) beyond the moon’s far side. It is farther than any spacecraft designed to carry people has ever flown.
The spacecraft is now set to cross the 238,900-mile (384,400-kilometer) gap between the Moon and Earth. It is expected to plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere on December 11, a process that will create enough pressure to heat its exterior to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
If the astronauts were on board, they would be protected by a heat shield.
On re-entry, Orion will be traveling at 20,000 miles per hour (32,187 kilometers per hour), or more than 26 times the speed of sound. All of that energy will be dissipated as the capsule crashes back into Earth’s dense inner atmosphere and then releases its parachutes to further slow its descent before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
In total, the Orion capsule will have traveled more than 1.3 million miles into space.
NASA has been preparing for this mission for more than a decade. After its successful completion, the space agency will try to select a crew to fly the Artemis II mission, which could lift off as soon as 2024. Artemis II will aim to send astronauts on a similar trajectory to Artemis I, flying around the moon but not landing on its surface.
This in turn could pave the way for the Artemis III mission, which is it is currently slated for a 2025 release — and is expected to send a woman and a person of color to the moon for the first time. It will also mark the first human visit to the lunar surface in half a century.
The performance of the Orion spacecraft is “extraordinary,” Howard Hu, Orion’s program manager, told reporters last week.
The space agency had to fix some minor problems, including unexpected ones a communication breakdown that lasted nearly an hour. But NASA officials said there have been no major problems and are calling the mission a remarkable success so far.