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NASA’s Orion capsule is orbiting the moon, capturing views that will make your head spin

NASA’s Orion capsule is orbiting the moon, capturing views that will make your head spin

A view captured by a camera on one of the wings of Orion’s solar array shows Earth dipping below the moon’s horizon. Part of the Orion capsule is in the foreground on the left. (NASA photo)

NASA’s Orion capsule circled the moon todaymarking a key milestone in the multi-week Artemis 1 mission that paves the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.

As the unmanned spacecraft maneuvered for its outbound powered flyby, it sent back a spectacular set of pictures which showed the moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield and the tiny blue Earth nestled below the lunar horizon.

Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt “giddy” when they saw the images descend.

“They’re just happy that all the hard work and dedication they’ve put in over the years — many, many, many years — is really paying dividends,” he told reporters.

Mission Manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was going “without a hitch” except for a few glitches in the power system and star trackers.

The moon is getting bigger in a series of images sent from the Orion capsule.  The final image in this set shows Earth in the distant background, more than 230,000 miles away.  (NASA photos)

The moon is getting bigger in a series of images sent from the Orion capsule. The final image in this set shows Earth in the distant background, more than 230,000 miles away. (NASA photos)

Today’s 2.5 minute engine fire, which followed five days after Launch of Artemis 1, sent Orion to the moon 81 miles away. At the time of closest approach, the spacecraft was zooming over the surface of the Moon at speeds in excess of 5,000 miles per hour. Orion was out of contact with Earth for about 34 minutes as it flew behind the Moon.

Another maneuver, scheduled for Friday, will put the spacecraft in what is known as a distant retrograde orbit, which extends 40,000 miles beyond the Moon. Such an orbit would be the furthest from Earth flown by a spacecraft designed to carry humans during its mission. (Some commentators have noted that Apollo 10 Lunar Ascent Modulewhich was dropped in 1969 and now orbits the Sun, is further.)

Orion was in darkness during today’s closest approach, so there was no opportunity to capture views of the Apollo landing sites as it flew by. But Sarafin promised that NASA would make the announcement more great pictures — after they are retrieved from the spacecraft and released for distribution. NASA also set a streaming video channel to display live images from Artemis 1 when available.

The views could get even better when Orion makes another close approach to the moon on December 5, during its return to Earth maneuver. That trajectory should send the spacecraft over the Apollo sites in daylight.

This uncrewed Artemis 1 mission is supposed to test the equipment and procedures that will be used in 2024 or so for the Artemis 2 mission, which would send a crew of astronauts around the Moon. Artemis 2 would in turn set the stage for a manned moon landing, currently scheduled for late 2025. It would be the first such landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.

An interior view of the Orion capsule shows a sensor-equipped dummy that has been nicknamed

An interior view of the Orion capsule shows a sensor-equipped dummy nicknamed “Commander Moonikin Campos” sitting in the seat on the left. A zero G indicator, styled after the character Snoopy from the comic strip “Peanuts”, floats in the lower right corner of the doll. The console for the experimental Callisto Alexa-like device is front and center.

Three dummies sit inside the Artemis 1 capsule, wired with sensors that monitor temperature, radiation exposure and other factors during flight.

The capsule also has i An Alexa-style voice assistant, codenamed Callisto, created by Amazon in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Cisco. During future deep space flights, something like Callisto could provide a channel for information and video conferencing — as well as HAL’s kind of companionship — for crews who might miss out on real-time contact with humans on Earth.

“We’ve had several direct technology assessments of the Callisto payload, and it’s working very well around the world,” said Howard Hu, who is the Orion program manager at the Johnson Space Center. “We’re getting good visuals and good communication, thanks to Judd’s team allocating some bandwidth. Right now, based on those sessions, things are looking very good with that load.”

Orion is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11, ending the Artemis 1 mission.

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