Orion captures stunning views as it completes its closest flyby of the Moon

Orion captures stunning views as it completes its closest flyby of the Moon

Six days after NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched on its journey to the moon, the bubblegum-shaped capsule reached its destination on Monday. Soaring 81 miles above the lunar surface, the spacecraft passed over historic Tranquility Base — the site of the Apollo 11 moon landing — and entered the history books.

Snapping views of Earth and the Moon, the capsule completed its go-around and one of its two biggest maneuvers of the mission, setting a record milestone: traveling more than 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the Moon. When the spacecraft reaches that distance, it will break a record set by the crew of Apollo 13 and reach the farthest distance traveled by a human spacecraft.

“We are preparing for an orbit beyond the Moon,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, said during a press conference Monday. “Called a far retrograde orbit, today was our biggest propulsive event of the mission to prepare us for this.”

Sarafin said the maneuver is the first of two, and by entering this unique orbit, it allows the team to put the Orion spacecraft through its paces.

“It’s a great mission to load the system and reduce risk,” he said.

Monday’s flyby was the closest Orion will be to the moon as it enters the far retrograde orbit, meaning the spacecraft will orbit the moon in the opposite direction that the moon orbits Earth. Sarafin said this will not only test the propulsion system, as it requires large propulsive maneuvers, but also the spacecraft’s communications system. At its furthest point, the spacecraft will be 268,000 miles from Earth.

This flight is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years and establish a presence in lunar orbit. It’s also a crucial step toward one day achieving the agency’s ultimate goal of putting boots on Mars.

The Orion capsule blasted off on NASA’s mega rocket, the Space Launch System (or SLS). Plagued by cost overruns and many delays, some were skeptical that the SLS would ever get off the ground. Last week, the giant catapulted the Orion capsule into space and on its way to the moon.

With this flight, the rocket established itself as the most powerful rocket in operation to reach orbit, as it surpassed by 15 percent the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Sarafin described the launch as “eye-watering,” revealing that the rocket, solid rocket boosters, crew and Orion spacecraft have exceeded all expectations so far.

“Everybody in mission control is giddy,” Judd Frayling, Artemis 1’s flight director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said during the news briefing. “People are just amazed; flight controllers are amazed by the great videos and images coming from Orion.


These images include some stunning views of Orion as it passes the moon, and a photo of the moon’s south pole, where future Artemis missions are expected to land. Orion also beamed a view of Earth in the distance, looking like a small blue marble against the blackness of space, looking like a tribute to Carl Sagan and the famous image of a pale blue dot taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

“We were like kids in a candy store, as soon as the images came out there were smiles everywhere,” Sarafin said. “This mission is a dream for many people at the agency, and it’s a great day and a huge accomplishment.”

After completing its orbit around the Moon, Orion will return to Earth, where it will land in the Pacific Ocean on December 11. The landing, like the rest of the mission, will be practice for future missions that will carry astronauts. As such, Orion is equipped with scientific instruments that will provide a wealth of data to help engineers understand how astronauts will be affected by future flights. This includes radiation sensors and much more.

“This flight is not just about flying hardware, it’s about being as safe as possible,” Sarafin said. “Flight safety for our astronauts is paramount.”

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