The Artemis Orion capsule flies by the moon in a long-awaited development for NASA
NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon on Monday, whipping across and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with seated test dummies for the astronauts.
It’s the first time a US capsule has visited the Moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and marks a milestone in the US$4.1 billion test flight that began on Wednesday last.
The 128-kilometer close approach occurred while the crew capsule and its three wired dummies were on the far side of the moon. Due to a half-hour communications blackout, flight controllers in Houston were unsure if the critical engine burn had gone well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 370,000 kilometers from Earth.
The capsule’s cameras returned an image of the world – a small blue orb surrounded by blackness.
“Our pale blue dot and its eight billion human inhabitants are now in sight,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
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The capsule accelerated well over 8,000 km/h when it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion was hovering over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
« This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time, » flight director Zeb Scoville said.
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Earlier in the morning, the moon grew larger in the video as the capsule closed the final thousand miles from its liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built .
Orion had to launch a slingshot around the moon to gain enough speed to enter the swept and unbalanced lunar orbit. The flight controllers evaluated the returned data to determine if the engine ignition proceeded as expected. Another shot will place the capsule in that elongated orbit on Friday.
Next weekend, Orion will break NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts – nearly 400,000 kilometers from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will continue, reaching a maximum distance of the Earth next Monday at nearly 433,000 kilometers.
The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit, before returning home. A Pacific splashdown is scheduled for December 11.
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Orion does not have a lunar lander; a landing won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before that, astronauts will tether to Orion for a moon tour as early as 2024.
NASA officials were pleased with how the mission went. The Space Launch System rocket performed extremely well in its early days, they told reporters late last week.
The 98-meter rocket, however, caused more damage than expected on the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force of the four million kilograms of lift-off thrust was so great that it ripped off the elevator’s blast doors.