NASA’s Orion capsule orbited the moon today, marking a crucial milestone in the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission that prepares the way to send astronauts to the lunar surface.
As the shipping traffic was not created for his outbound flight, he sent a a spectacular set of images which shows the larger moon looming over his metaphorical windshield, and the smaller blue earth falling 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 go down.
“They’re just happy that all the hard work and dedication that I’ve put in over the years — many, many, many years — is really paying dividends,” he told reporters.
Mission Manager Mike Sarafin said the flight proceeded with “no concerns” other than a few glitches with its power system and star booster.
Today’s 2.5-minute engine burn, which came five days after the Artemis 1 launch, sent Orion as close as 81 miles to the moon. During its closest approach, space zoomed over the surface of the moon at a speed of more than 5,000 mph. Orion was out of contact with Earth for about 34 minutes as it flew behind the moon.
The second run, scheduled for Friday, will put space in a known retrograde orbit, stretching 40,000 miles beyond the moon. It would be such an extreme orbit from Earth that spacecraft designed to carry humans would fly away on their mission. (Some commentators have noted the Apollo 10 lunar module, which was launched in 1969 and now orbits the sun; farther.
Orion was in the dark during today’s nearer approach, so there was no opportunity to get a flying view of Apollo’s approach. But Sarafin promised that NASA would release the larger pictures — once they were recovered from the spacecraft and cleared for distribution. NASA has also set up a streaming video stream to broadcast live imagery from Artemis 1 when it becomes available.
Opinions may improve when Orion makes another close lunar approach on December 5 on its way back to Earth. That would shed light on the trajectory of space through the places of Apollo.
This free Artemis 1 mission was meant to test the equipment and procedures that would be used in 2024 or so for the Artemis II mission, which would send a crew of astronauts around the moon. Artemis II, in turn, would set the stage for a crewed lunar landing, now scheduled for late 2025. That would be the first such approach since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Three mannequins sit inside the Artemis 1 capsule, wrapped with sensors for temperature, radiation detection and other things done during the flight.
The capsule also has an Alexa-style voice assistant, code-named Callisto, which was developed by Amazon in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Cisco. In future deep space flights, something like Callisto could provide a channel for data and videoconferencing — as well as a HAL-like crew of crew members who might be missing out on real-time contact with people on Earth.
“We’ve had two life assessments of the Callisto payload technology, and it works very well across the board,” said Howard Hu, who is the Orion program manager at the Johnson Space Center. “We’re getting good visuals and good communications, thanks to Judd’s team putting in some bandwidth. Right now, based on those sessions, things are looking very good with that payload.”
Orion is scheduled to dive into the Pacific Ocean on December 11, bringing the Artemis 1 mission to an end.
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