Science

What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it cruises toward the Moon

What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it cruises toward the Moon

Artist's rendering of Orion traveling past the Moon, with Earth rising in the background.

Artist’s rendering of Orion traveling past the Moon, with Earth rising in the background.
Illustration: NASA

NASA The Space Launch System exploded on Wednesday, sending the unmanned Orion spacecraft on a 25-day trip to the moon and back. Orion is due to arrive at its destination early next week, at which time it will perform some intricate orbital acrobatics and set a number of space records in the process.

We are in the second day of Artemis 1, and the mission seems to be going well. The SLS lit up the Florida sky early Wednesday morning, using its 8.8 million pounds of thrust to carry the $20 billion Orion capsule into space. After a successful trans-lunar injection, Orion separated from the rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage about two hours into the mission. The capsule, with its trusty companion, European service module (ESM), now cruising to the Moon.

The launch itself was spectacular, but there were some good milestones ahead. Orion is powered by the ESM, which, in addition to providing power and temperature regulation, is responsible for course correction en route. Le voyage dan la lune is expected to last about five days, during which time mission controllers will closely monitor the capsule’s systems.

Artemis 1 mission profile.

Artemis 1 mission profile.
Graphically: NASA

On Monday, November 21, Orion will begin the process of entering a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon, in which the spacecraft will orbit in the opposite direction to the Moon’s rotation. To get there, ESM will have to make a flyby at 7:44 a.m. (all times Eastern), when the spacecraft will come within 60 miles (97 km) of the moon. This will be Orion’s closest approach to the lunar surface.

The Moon’s gravity will then propel Orion into DRO, sending it 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the Moon before it turns back. The DRO insertion burn is scheduled for November 25 at 4:52 p.m., the 10th day of the Artemis 1 mission.

This distance is 30,000 miles (48,000 km) farther than the previous orbital distance record, set in 1970 during Apollo 13. It’ll also be the farthest distance that a crew-rated spacecraft (i.e., a spacecraft designed to handle human passengers) has flown from Earth. As it stands, the Apollo 13 crew traveled the farthest from Earth of any humans, which is some serious bragging rights. Orion won’t break this record during Artemis 1, as there’s no one on board, but the crew of Artemis 2, currently scheduled to launch in late 2024, is poised to smash this record.

Orion is set to break the Apollo 13 record at 8:42 a.m. on Saturday, November 26 (day 11), and reach its maximum distance from Earth at 4:05 p.m. on Monday, November 28 (day 13), at which point the spacecraft will be 298,565 miles (480,494 km) from home.

Speaking to reporters during a pre-launch briefing on August 5, Rick LaBrode, lead Artemis 1 flight director, said Orion will attempt to capture an image of Earth similar to those taken during Apollo. The capsule will also take some photos when it reaches its maximum distance from Earth, LaBrode added.

Orion will begin its departure from DRO on December 1 (day 16), performing a trajectory maneuver at 16:53. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive home on December 11, when it will have to survive atmospheric re-entry and a fall in the Pacific Ocean.

When all is said and done, Orion will have traveled 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers), another record – the longest distance ever traveled by a crew-rated capsule. But that’s not all, as Orion will set records for staying in space longer than any other manned spacecraft without docking at the space station and for being the hottest and fastest manned capsule to hit Earth’s atmosphere.

Artemis 1 is ambitious, no doubt, but it has to be. The The Artemis program as a whole serves as a springboard for getting humans to Mars, and the things we learn now will inform those future missions to the Red Planet. For example, Orion will return from the Moon at Mach 32, but the capsule, upon returning from the Red Planet, will travel at Mach 36, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters on Aug. 3. A key objective of Artemis 1 is to assess Orion’s ability to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, which will be a key test of its heat shield.

“We’re waiting for a lot of testing,” Nelson said. He is absolutely right, hence the importance of Artemis 1. The mission is off to a great start. Let’s hope it stays that way.

More: Exciting photos of NASA’s SLS megarocket launch to the moon



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