What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it travels to the moon

What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it travels to the moon

Artist's rendering of Orion traveling past the Moon, with Earth's sunrise in the background.

Artist’s rendering of Orion traveling past the Moon, with Earth’s sunrise in the background.
Illustration: NASA

of NASA The Space Launch System blasted off on Wednesday, sending the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a 25-day trip to the moon and back. Orion is due to reach its destination early next week, at which time it will perform some complex orbital acrobatics and set a number of spaceflight records in the process.

We are on the second day of Artemis 1 and the mission seems to be going well. The SLS lit up the Florida sky early Wednesday morning, using its 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel the $20 billion Orion capsule into space. After a successful translunar injection, Orion separated from the rocket’s intermediate cryogenic propulsion stage about two hours into the mission. The capsule, with its faithful companion, European service module (ESM), now traveling to the Moon.

The launch itself was spectacular, but there were some great stages ahead. Orion is powered by the ESM, which, in addition to providing power and temperature regulation, is responsible for making course corrections along the way. Le voyage dan la lune is expected to take about five days, during which time mission controllers will closely monitor the capsule’s systems.

Artemis 1 mission profile.

Artemis 1 mission profile.
Graphic: NASA

On Monday, November 21, Orion will begin the process of entering a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon, in which the spacecraft will orbit in the opposite direction of the Moon’s rotation. To get there, ESM will need to perform an outbound powered flyby at 7:44 a.m. (all times Eastern), at which time the spacecraft will come within 60 miles (97 km) of the moon. This will be Orion’s closest approach to the lunar surface.

The Moon’s gravity will then propel Orion into DRO, sending it 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the Moon before it turns back. The DRO insertion burn is scheduled for November 25 at 4:52 p.m., the 10th day of the Artemis 1 mission.

This distance is 30,000 miles (48,000 km) farther than the previous orbital distance record, set in 1970 during Apollo 13. It’ll also be the farthest distance that a crew-rated spacecraft (i.e., a spacecraft designed to handle human passengers) has flown from Earth. As it stands, the Apollo 13 crew traveled the farthest from Earth of any humans, which is some serious bragging rights. Orion won’t break this record during Artemis 1, as there’s no one on board, but the crew of Artemis 2, currently scheduled to launch in late 2024, is poised to smash this record.

Orion is set to break the Apollo 13 record at 8:42 a.m. on Saturday, November 26 (day 11), and reach its maximum distance from Earth at 4:05 p.m. on Monday, November 28 (day 13), at which point the spacecraft will be 298,565 miles (480,494 km) from home.

Speaking to reporters during a pre-launch briefing on August 5, Rick LaBrode, lead Artemis 1 flight director, said Orion will attempt to capture an Image of Earthrise similar to those taken during Apollo. The capsule will also take several pictures when it reaches its maximum distance from Earth, LaBrod added.

Orion will begin its liftoff from DRO on December 1 (day 16), performing a trajectory maneuver at 4:53 p.m. The spacecraft is due to arrive home on December 11, when it will need to survive atmospheric re-entry and fall into the Pacific ocean.

When all is said and done, Orion will have traveled 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers), another record — the longest distance ever traveled by a crewed capsule. But that’s not all, as Orion will set records for staying in space longer than any other crewed spacecraft without docking with a space station, and for being the hottest and fastest capsule with rating for a crew that hit Earth’s atmosphere.

Artemis 1 is ambitious, no doubt, but it has to be. The The Artemis program as a whole serves as a stepping stone to getting humans to Mars, and the things we’re learning now will inform those future missions to the Red Planet. As an example, Orion will return from the Moon at Mach 32, but the capsule on its return from the Red Planet will travel at Mach 36, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters on Aug. 3. A key purpose of Artemis 1 is to assess Orion’s ability to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, which will be a key test of its heat shield.

“We have a lot of testing to do,” Nelson said. He is absolutely right, hence the importance of Artemis 1. The mission is off to a great start. Let’s hope it stays that way.

| More ▼: Exciting photos of NASA’s SLS Megarocket launch to the moon

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