NASA’s Orion capsule orbited the moon today, marking a critical milestone in a week-long Artemis 1 mission that paves the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.
As the unmanned spacecraft maneuvered for its outgoing powered flyby, it sent a spectacular series of images that made the moon loom larger in its metaphorical windshield, and a small blue Earth below the lunar horizon.
Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt dizzy when they saw the photos.
“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 off,” he told reporters.
Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight went off without a hitch other than a few glitches in the power system and star trackers.
Today’s 2.5-minute engine fire, five days after the launch of the Artemis 1, brought Orion as close to the moon as 81 miles. At the time of closest approach, the spacecraft whizzed across the lunar surface at more than 5,000 mph. Orion had no contact with Earth for about 34 minutes as it flew behind the moon.
Another maneuver, scheduled for Friday, will put the spacecraft into a so-called distant retrograde orbit, which extends 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Such an orbit would be the farthest distance from Earth that a spacecraft designed to carry humans has flown during its mission. (Some commentators noted that the Apollo 10 lunar liftoff module, jettisoned in 1969 and now orbiting the sun, is further away.)
Orion was in darkness during today’s closest approach, so there was no opportunity to get a view of the Apollo landing sites as it flew overhead. But Sarafin promised NASA will release more great photos — once they’re downloaded from the spacecraft and released for distribution. NASA has also set up a streaming video channel showing live footage from Artemis 1 when it is available.
The views could be even better when Orion approaches the moon again 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 intended to test the equipment and procedures that would be used in 2024 or so for the Artemis 2 mission, which would send a crew of astronauts around the moon. Artemis 2, in turn, would set the stage for a crewed lunar landing, currently scheduled for late 2025. That would be the first such landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Three mannequins sit inside the Artemis 1 capsule, wired with sensors that monitor temperature, radiation exposure and other factors during flight.
The capsule also has an Alexa-style voice assistant, codenamed Callisto, which was created by Amazon in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Cisco. During future deep-space flights, something like Callisto could provide a conduit for information and videoconferencing — as well as a HAL-esque kind of companionship for crews who may miss real-time contact with humans on Earth.
“We’ve had some live technology evaluations of the Callisto payload and it’s working very well across the board,” said Howard Hu, the Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center. “We’re getting good images and good communication, thanks to Judd’s team allocating some bandwidth. Based on those sessions, it looks very good with that load at the moment.”
Orion is expected to splash into the Pacific on Dec. 11, bringing the Artemis 1 mission to an end.