NASA’s Orion capsule orbited the moon today, marking a milestone in the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission that is paving the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.
As the uncrewed spacecraft maneuvered for flight with outgoing power, it returned a jet An amazing collection of photos which showed the Moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield, and the presence of a small blue Earth below the lunar horizon.
Artemis 1 flight director Judd Freleng said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt “dizzy” when they saw the images come down.
“They are just happy that all the hard work and dedication they put in for so many – many, many years – is really paying off,” he told reporters.
Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was going “without worries,” other than a few glitches in its power system and star tracker.
Today’s 2.5-minute engine fire, which came five days after Artemis 1’s launch, brought Orion 81 miles closer to the moon. At the time of closest approach, the spacecraft zoomed into the lunar surface at more than 5,000 miles per hour. Orion lost contact with Earth for about 34 minutes as it flew past the Moon.
Another maneuver, scheduled for Friday, will put the spacecraft into what’s known as a far retrograde orbit, extending 40,000 miles behind the moon. Such an orbit would be the farthest from Earth ever flown by a spacecraft designed to carry humans during its mission. (Some commentators have noted that the Apollo 10 lunar ascent vehicle, which was scrapped in 1969 and is now orbiting the sun, Beyond that.)
Orion was in the dark during its closest approach today, so there was no chance of capturing views of the Apollo landing sites as it flew by. But Sarafin promises that NASA will release more great images — once they’ve been downloaded from the spacecraft and cleared for distribution. NASA has also created a video feed channel to show live images from Artemis 1 when they are available.
The views could be even better when Orion makes another close approach to the Moon on December 5, as it maneuvers back to Earth. This trajectory should send the spacecraft over the Apollo sites in broad daylight.
The uncrewed Artemis 1 mission aims to test equipment and procedures that will be used in 2024 or so for the Artemis 2 mission, which will send a crew of astronauts around the moon. Artemis 2, in turn, will pave the way for a manned lunar landing, currently scheduled for late 2025. This will be the first such landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Three mannequins are housed inside the Artemis 1 capsule, wired to sensors that monitor temperature, radiation exposure, and other factors in flight.
The capsule also contains an Alexa-style voice assistant, dubbed Callisto, created by Amazon in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Cisco. During future deep-space flights, something like Callisto could provide a conduit for information and videoconferencing — as well as some kind of companionship like HAL for crews who might lose real-time contact with people on Earth.
“We’ve done a live technical evaluation of the Callisto payload, and it’s doing very well across the board,” said Howard Ho, director of the Orion Program at Johnson Space Center. “We’re getting good pictures and good connections, thanks to Judd’s team putting in some bandwidth. Right now, based on those sessions, things are looking pretty good with this payload.”
Orion is scheduled to launch into the Pacific Ocean on December 11, ending the Artemis 1 mission.
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