NASA’s Orion spacecraft reaches a record distance from Earth

NASA’s Orion spacecraft reaches a record distance from Earth

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The Orion spacecraft, which is the core of NASA’s historic Artemis I mission, reached its farthest distance from Earth Monday afternoon, shattering the record for the maximum distance ever traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans.

The space agency confirmed Monday evening that the Orion capsule had reached its center of its uncrewed mission around the moon — about 270,000 miles (434,523 kilometers) from Earth. That’s more than 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers) beyond the far side of the moon.

The previous record for farthest distance traveled by a human-rated spacecraft was set during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. That mission, which actually had humans on board, extended 248,655 miles (400,171 kilometers) from our home planet.

The objective of the Artemis I mission, that launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 16 is to test the Orion capsule to its limits, to ensure the vehicle is ready to safely house humans. The sea trial is part of NASA’s wider Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s.

There have been several hiccups – or “funnynesses”, as Artemis I Mission Manager Michael Sarafin refers to them – on this mission.

One problem had to do with Orion’s star tracker, a system that uses a map of the cosmos to tell engineers on the ground how the spacecraft is oriented. Some of the data measurements didn’t come back as expected, but NASA officials chalked that up to a learning curve that comes with piloting a new spacecraft.

“We worked through that and there was great leadership by the Orion team,” Sarafin said at a Nov. 18 press conference.

Overall, however, the spacecraft’s performance has been “excellent,” Orion program manager Howard Hu told reporters Monday evening. The spacecraft exceeds expectations in some ways, such as producing about 20% more power than it actually needs, he noticed.

Sarafin added that things are going so well that NASA is working on adding seven additional mission objectives designed to collect more data on the spacecraft’s capabilities and performance.

The spacecraft is now expected to return to the moon before firing its engines on Thursday to leave its current orbit and return to Earth. The Orion capsule is on its way to crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on December 11.

In this image from NASA, Earth and its moon can be seen from NASA's Orion spacecraft on Monday.

“Artemis I has had extraordinary success and completed a series of historic events,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday. “Since launch we have received critical data and much more to come. … The biggest post-launch test is reentry, because we want to know that that heat shield operates at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius), almost half as hot as the sun, and comes in at 32 times the speed of the noise (nearly 40,000 kilometers per hour).”

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Until the spacecraft is safely back on Earth, there is always some risk involved, Sarafin added. He noted that the risk of hitting orbital debris is a constantly looming threat that won’t go away until the capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. And even after that, Orion must safely deploy parachutes to ensure the ocean gently splashes down.

After landing, a NASA recovery vessel will be waiting nearby to take the Orion capsule to safety.

If the Artemis I mission is successful, NASA will try to choose a crew to fly on 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 the surface. The Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for a launch in 2025is expected to finally put boots on the moon again, and NASA officials have said it will be the first woman and first person of color to reach such a milestone.

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