Six days after NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched to the moon, the gumball-shaped capsule reached its destination on Monday. Soaring 81 miles above the lunar surface, the spacecraft passed over historic Tranquility Base – the site of the Apollo 11 moon landing – and into the history books.
Capturing views of Earth and the Moon, the capsule completed its flyby and one of its two biggest mission maneuvers, preparing for a record-breaking milestone: traveling more than 40,000 miles past the face. hidden from the moon. When the spacecraft reaches that distance, it will break a record set by the Apollo 13 crew and reach the farthest distance a human-rated spacecraft has ever flown.
“We are preparing to orbit beyond the moon,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission manager, said Monday at a press conference. “Called a distant retrograde orbit, today was our biggest mission propellant event to prepare for this.”
Sarafin said the maneuver is the first of two, and by entering this unique orbit, it allows the team to put the Orion spacecraft through its paces.
“It’s a big mission to stress the system and reduce risk,” he said.
Monday’s flyby was the closest Orion will be to the moon when it enters far retrograde orbit, meaning the spacecraft will circle the moon in the opposite direction to the orbiting moon. around the Earth. Sarafin said this would not only test the propulsion system as it requires large propulsion maneuvers, but also the spacecraft’s communication system. At its furthest point, the spacecraft will be 268,000 miles from Earth.
This flight is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years and establish a presence in lunar orbit. It’s also a crucial step towards one day achieving the agency’s ultimate goal of putting boots on Mars.
The Orion capsule was launched atop NASA’s mega lunar rocket, the Space Launch System (or SLS). Plagued by cost overruns and numerous delays, some were skeptical of the launch of SLS. Last week, the juggernaut catapulted the Orion capsule into space and on a path to the moon.
With this flight, the rocket established itself as the most powerful operating rocket to reach orbit, as it outperformed the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo lunar missions in the 1960s and 70s, by 15 percent . Sarafin described the launch as “appetizing”, revealing that the rocket, solid rocket boosters, crew and Orion spacecraft have all exceeded all expectations so far.
“Everyone in mission control is giddy,” Judd Freiling, Artemis 1 flight director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said at the press conference. “People are just amazed; flight controllers are amazed by the stunning videos and images coming from Orion.
These images included stunning views of Orion as it passed near the Moon and a photo of the lunar south pole where future Artemis missions are expected to land. Orion also sent back views of Earth in the distance, appearing as a tiny blue marble against the blackness of space, seemingly as an homage to Carl Sagan and the famous pale blue dot image captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
“We were like kids in a candy store, as soon as the pictures came in there were smiles on every level,” Sarafin said. “This assignment is a dream for many people across the agency and it’s a great day and a great accomplishment.”
Once its lap beyond the Moon is complete, Orion will return to Earth, where it will plunge into the Pacific Ocean on December 11. The landing, like the rest of the mission, will be training for future missions that will carry astronauts. As such, Orion is equipped with scientific instruments that will provide a wealth of data to help engineers understand how astronauts will be affected by future flights. This includes radiation sensors and many more.
“This flight isn’t just about stealing flight hardware, it’s about being as safe as possible.” said Sarafin. “Flight safety for our astronauts is paramount.”
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