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NASA’s Orion spacecraft reaches record distance from Earth

NASA’s Orion spacecraft reaches record distance from Earth

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The Orion spacecraft, which is the backbone of NASA’s historic Artemis I mission, reached its greatest distance from Earth on Monday afternoon, breaking the record for the maximum distance ever traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans.

The space agency confirmed Monday night that the Orion capsule had reached the midpoint from its uncrewed mission around the Moon – about 270,000 miles (434,523 kilometers) from Earth. That’s more than 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers) beyond the far side of the Moon.

The previous record for the greatest distance traveled by a human craft was set during The Apollo 13 mission in 1970. This mission, which actually had humans on board, spanned 248,655 miles (400,171 kilometers) from our home planet.

The purpose of the Artemis I mission, which started from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16 is to test the Orion capsule to its limits, ensuring the vehicle is ready to safely accept humans. The test launch is part of NASA’s broader Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s.

There were a few hiccups – or “funny stuff” like the Artemis I mission manager Michael Sarafin refers to them – to this mission.

One problem involved 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 operating a new spacecraft.

“We overcame that and there was great leadership from the Orion team,” Sarafin said at a press conference on November 18.

Overall, however, the spacecraft’s performance has been “outstanding,” Orion program manager Howard Hu told reporters Monday night. The spacecraft exceeded expectations in some ways, such as producing about 20% more power than it really needed, he noted.

Sarafin added that things are going so well that NASA is working to add seven additional mission objectives designed to gather more data about the spacecraft’s capabilities and performance.

The spacecraft is now expected to return to the moon before firing its engines on Thursday to exit its current trajectory and head back to Earth. The Orion capsule is about to fall into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on December 11.

“Artemis I was an outstanding success and completed a series of historic events,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday. “Since launch we have been getting critical data back and there is more to come. … The biggest test after launch is re-entry, because we want to know that this heat shield is operating at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius), almost half as hot as the sun, re-entering at 32 times the speed than the speed of sound (almost 40,000 kilometers per hour).”

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Until the spacecraft returns safely to Earth, there is always risk, Sarafin added. He noted that the risk of hitting orbital debris is an ever-looming threat that won’t go away until the capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. And even then, Orion must safely deploy parachutes to ensure a gentle fall into the ocean.

After landing, a NASA recovery craft will wait nearby to retrieve the Orion capsule to safety.

If the Artemis I mission is successful, NASA will try to select a crew to fly on the Artemis II mission, which could take off as soon as 2024. Artemis II will aim to send astronauts on a similar trajectory to Artemis I, flying around the moon , but does not land on its surface. Mission Artemis III, currently scheduled for release in 2025is expected to finally put boots back on the moon, and NASA officials said it will include the first woman and the first person of color to reach such a milestone.

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