NASA’s Orion capsule, which orbits the moon at an average of 80 miles (130 km) per hour, passed the lunar surface Monday morning. This is a significant achievement in the mission that tested the US space agency’s ability to send astronauts back to the moon.
Orion, which is designed to fly astronauts, but is carrying only inanimate scientific payloads for the first mission, is expected to travel more than 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon. This is the longest distance a spacecraft meant to carry humans has ever traveled.
This is all part of NASA’s Artemis program. It aims to establish a lunar base that can host permanent astronauts, with the hope of one day paving the way to Mars.
Last Wednesday, the Artemis I mission launched. NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System (or SLS) rocket lifted the Orion capsule into space. This made the rocket the most powerful operational launch vehicle ever constructed. The thrust of the SLS rocket was 15% higher than that of the Saturn V rocket which powered the 20th-century moon landings.
Orion is currently on a 25-and-a-half-day journey to circumnavigate and orbit the moon.
Monday’s flyby on the lunar surface was the nearest the Orion capsule would be to the moon before entering a “distant Retrograde orbit,” which means it will circle it in the opposite direction of how the moon travels around Earth.
As NASA’s Artemis mission manager Michael Sarafin stated last week, the path is intended to “stress-test” the Orion capsule.
The Orion capsule will be able to lap the moon and then return to Earth. It is scheduled for a splashdown landing in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
The landing site for the spacecraft is located just offshore of San Diego. NASA recovery ships will wait nearby to transport the spacecraft safely to safety. This practice run will prepare them for future missions with astronauts. They’ll also try to recover scientific instruments from the spacecraft that have provided data to NASA to help them understand how future astronauts may be affected.
Sarafin said Friday that NASA had had to fix more than a dozen problems with the Orion capsule but overall, the spacecraft is performing “really good.”
Orion’s star-tracking system, which uses a map to show engineers how the spacecraft is aligned, was one of the problems that came up. NASA officials explained that some data readings didn’t come back as expected. However, they attributed this to the learning curve that comes along with piloting a new spacecraft.
Sarafin stated that they worked through the situation and had some outstanding leadership from the Orion team.
He said, “We had a good understanding of the system going into the mission.” “We had (predictions), whether it was power consumption, propellant usage or temperature of the vehicle — and we aren’t exactly matching that. It is performing better in most cases.
“We are seeing things that don’t match our expectations.” The team will spend the time to examine that area with a fine-toothed comb to ensure that there aren’t any other potential issues.
Sarafin’s remarks were made before NASA made its final decision on Saturday to place the Orion spacecraft in a retrograde orbit around Moon.