Artemis 1 mission: NASA’s Orion spacecraft makes its closest approach to the moon

Artemis 1 mission: NASA’s Orion spacecraft makes its closest approach to the moon

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NASA’s Orion capsule passed about 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the lunar surface early Monday, a monumental achievement in a mission designed to test the US space agency’s ability to one day return astronauts to the moon.

After flying over the moon, the Orion — which was designed to fly astronauts, but only carries inanimate, scientific payload for its first mission — is expected to travel more than 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon, the farthest a human-carrying spacecraft has ever traveled.

It’s all part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to eventually establish a lunar outpost that can permanently host astronauts for the first time in history, hoping to one day pave the way to Mars.

The Artemis I mission was launched last Wednesday morning, when NASA besieged and long delayed The Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket carried the Orion capsule into space, cementing the rocket as the most powerful operational launch vehicle ever built. The thrust of the SLS rocket exceeded that of the Saturn V rocket, which powered the moon landings in the 20th century, for 15%.

Now Orion is on a 25-and-a-half-day journey to orbit the Moon.

Monday’s flyby of the moon’s surface was the closest the Orion capsule will get to the moon before it enters a “far retrograde orbit,” meaning it will circle the moon in the opposite direction from the moon travels around the earth.

The trip is intended to “stress test” the Orion capsule, as Michael Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager, he put last week.

After touching down on the Moon, the Orion capsule is expected to turn toward Earth and gently descend into the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

The target landing site is just off the coast of San Diego, and NASA recovery ships will be waiting nearby to tow the spacecraft to safety, a practice for future missions involving astronauts. And this time they will also ask for some to be returned scientific instruments on board that collected data to help NASA understand how future flights might affect astronauts.

Sarafin told reporters Friday that NASA has had to work out more than a dozen “funny things” with the Orion capsule, but overall, the spacecraft is doing “really well.”

One problem that arose involved 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 data readings didn’t come back as expected, but NASA officials attributed that to the learning curve that comes with flying a new spacecraft.

“We worked through it, and there was great leadership from the Orion team,” Sarafin said.

“We had an understanding of the system going into the mission,” he added. “We’ve had (predictions) — whether it’s how much energy we’re going to use or how much fuel or how hot the vehicle is going to be — and we’re not exactly matching that. And in most cases it works better.

“We’re seeing things that don’t exactly match our predictions. And the team takes the time to go through it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure there’s not something else there that’s potentially a latent problem.”

Sarafin’s comments came before NASA made the final decision on Saturday to put the Orion spacecraft on a path to enter its far-retrograde orbit around the moon.

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