NASA’s Orion capsule makes farewell flight past the moon
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The historic Artemis I mission, which sends an unmanned spacecraft on an unprecedented journey around the moon, is now in the final leg of its historic journey.
Orion, as NASA’s new space capsule is called, passed the moon’s surface again Monday morning, capturing views of notable lunar locations, including a few Apollo landing sites. The spacecraft then passed just 80 miles (128.7 kilometers) above the lunar surface second close flyby of the moon.
Then the Orion fired up its main engine for about three and a half minutes – the longest burn it’s had on its journey so far. The engine burn-out put the capsule on its final homeward journey, beginning the final leg of its 25-and-a-half day journey.
The Artemis I mission launched on November 16, when NASA’s under siege and long postponed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket launched the Orion capsule into space, cementing its status as the most powerful operational launch vehicle ever built. The thrust of the SLS rocket surpassed that of the Saturn V rocket, which powered the 20th century moon landings. by 15%.
Orion separated from the rocket after reaching space and has been on a journey around the moon ever since. About a week ago, the capsule entered what’s called a “distant retrograde orbit” around the moon, allowing it to swing more than 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers) beyond the far side of the moon. That is further than any spacecraft designed to carry people has ever flown.
The spacecraft is now set to traverse the 238,900-mile (384,400-kilometer) void between the moon and Earth. It is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on Dec. 11, a process that will create enough pressure to heat its exterior to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
If there were astronauts on board, they would be protected by one heat shield.
On return, Orion travels at 20,000 miles per hour (32,187 kilometers per hour), or more than 26 times the speed of sound. All that energy will be dissipated as the capsule crashes back into Earth’s dense inner atmosphere, then releases its parachutes to further slow its descent before crashing into the Pacific Ocean.
All told, the Orion capsule will have traveled more than 1.3 million miles in space.
NASA has been preparing for this mission for over a decade. Upon successful completion, the space agency will begin searching for a crew to pilot the Artemis II mission, which could launch as early as 2024. Artemis II will aim to send astronauts on a similar trajectory to Artemis I, flying around the moon but not landing on its surface.
That, in turn, could pave the way for the Artemis III mission currently scheduled for a 2025 launch — and is expected to put a woman and a person of color on the moon for the first time. It would also mark the first human visit to the lunar surface in half a century.
Orion spacecraft performance was “excellent,” Howard Hu, the Orion program manager, told reporters last week.
The space agency had to solve some minor problems, including an unexpected one communication failure that lasted nearly an hour. But NASA officials said there have been no major problems and consider the mission a resounding success so far.
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