Science

Orion flies past the moon, instantly returning an iconic photo

Orion flies past the moon, instantly returning an iconic photo
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Orion, Moon and Earth in one photo.
to enlarge / Orion, Moon and Earth in one photo.

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft reached the farthest outbound point of its journey from Earth on Monday, more than 430,000 kilometers from a human home world. That’s nearly twice the distance between Earth and the Moon and more than the Apollo capsule traveled during NASA’s lunar missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

From this vantage point, on Monday, a camera attached to the solar panel on board Orion’s service module taking pictures of the Moon and, just beyond, the Earth. These were lovely, lonely, and evocative images.

“The picture was crazy,” said Rick LaBrode, chief flight director of the Artemis I mission. “It’s really hard to express what the feeling is. It’s really amazing to be here, and see it.”

LaBrode was speaking during a news conference at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, where he and other NASA officials provided an update on the progress of missions to test the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft. This uncrewed test flight is a precursor to crewed missions later this decade, including a lunar landing on the Artemis III mission.

After it completed a successful launch, mission manager Mike Sarafin said the agency now has full confidence Space Launch System Rocket. “Rocket proven,” he said.

Orion is still a work in progress, of course. Its mission is not complete until the spacecraft orbits the Moon, returns to Earth, survives re-entry into the atmosphere, splashes into the ocean, and is recovered on the coast near San Diego, California. Which is supposed to happen on December 11.

However, the mission went so well that NASA decided to add objectives such as firing different thrusters to test their performance. This work will increase NASA’s confidence in the Orion capsule and the Propulsive Service Module provided by the European Space Agency.

Overall, 31 of the Artemis I mission’s 124 baseline objectives have been completed, Sarafin said. Many of these relate to the performance of the launch vehicle. Of the remaining objectives, one half is in progress, and the other half is yet to be completed. Much of this is related to returning to Earth, such as the parachute deployment system.

Understandably, NASA engineers are thrilled with Artemis I’s performance so far. It was a long, bumpy and expensive development path to achieve this mission with the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft. But once the vehicles began flying, their performance met the space agency’s every expectation and hope, boosting confidence in the future of the Artemis program for lunar exploration.

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