After a flight past the moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will crash on Sunday

After a flight past the moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will crash on Sunday

Orion, the moon and a crescent moon on Monday.
Enlarge / Orion, the moon and a crescent moon on Monday.


The Orion spacecraft swept past the moon on Monday, flying to within 80 miles of that world’s surface as it headed for a return to Earth this weekend.

Making this “powered flyby burn” to move away from the Moon, Orion’s service module drained its longest main engine to date, lasting 3 minutes and 27 seconds. After the maneuver was successfully completed, NASA’s mission management team gave the “go” to send recovery teams into the Pacific Ocean, where Orion will crash midday on Sunday.

By entering and exiting lunar orbit during its deep space mission, Orion has now completed four major propulsive burns. This completes a major test of the spacecraft and its propulsive service module, which was built by the European Space Agency. Although a standard version of Orion flew in 2014, it did so without a service module.

As part of this Artemis I mission, NASA is now three weeks into a 25.5-day test flight of the Orion spacecraft. The goal is to validate the spacecraft’s capabilities ahead of a human flight of the vehicle in about two years, the Artemis II mission.

Orion has accomplished most of its major objectives so far, with only entry, descent, and landing as part of its mission ahead. The spacecraft’s heat shield must demonstrate that it can survive reentry at a speed of 39,400 km/h. This big test comes Sunday during a fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

A little power problem

So far, Orion’s test flight has gone remarkably well. Usually with new spacecraft there are problems with thrusters, navigation, onboard avionics and more. However, Orion has had no major problems. The only real troubleshooting was a problem with the vehicle’s power systems.

The problem occurred with four “latching current limiters” that help direct power to propulsion and heating systems on the Orion. For some reason, automated controllers on Orion commanded the four current limiters to “open” when no such command should have been sent. “We don’t know exactly what’s causing the problem, but teams are doing tests on the ground,” Debbie Korth, deputy manager of the Orion program, said at a Monday night briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Overall, the Orion spacecraft performed like a champ.
Enlarge / Overall, the Orion spacecraft performed like a champ.


This system is a bit like a circuit breaker in a house, and for some reason four of the circuit breakers opened when they weren’t supposed to. This did not pose a threat to Orion, as backup power systems are in place. If a crew had been on board, minor intervention would have been required to fix the problem.

In an interview after the press conference, Korth said she didn’t think the glitch would affect the service module that will be used for the Artemis II mission. This hardware has already been built and is being tested in the United States.

“I think it’s probably too early to say for sure, but ideally we don’t want to disrupt the Artemis II service module,” she said. “This could very well be something we can handle with software.”

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