What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it heads to the moon

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

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

that of NASA Space Launch System launched on Wednesday, sending the unmanned Orion spacecraft on a 25-day journey to the moon and back. Orion should reach its destination early next week, after which it will perform some intricate orbital acrobatics, setting some spaceflight records in the process.

We’re on day two of Artemis 1, and the mission seems to be going well. SLS lit up the Florida sky early Wednesday morning and used its 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel the $20 billion Orion capsule into space. After a successful trans-lunar injection, Orion separated from the rocket’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage some two hours into the mission. The capsule, with its faithful companion, the European service module (ESM), now sail to the moon.

The launch alone was spectacular, but there were several cool milestones ahead. Orion is propelled by the ESM, which not only provides power and controls temperature, but is also responsible for correcting course along the way. Le voyage dan la lune is expected to last about five days, during which time mission controllers will keep a close eye on the capsule’s systems.

Artemis 1 mission profile.

Artemis 1 mission profile.
Graphic: NASA

On Monday, November 21, Orion starts the process of entering a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the moon, in which the spacecraft will rotate in the opposite direction of the moon’s rotation. To get there, the ESM must perform an outgoing powered fly-by-burn at 7:44 a.m. (always East), after which 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 past the moon before returning. 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) further than the previous orbital distance record, set in 1970 during Apollo 13. It will also be the greatest distance a crew-rated spacecraft (i.e., a spacecraft designed to carry human passengers) has passed. flown from Earth. As it stands, the Apollo 13 crew traveled the farthest from Earth of all humans, which is some serious bragging rights. Orion will not break this record during Artemis 1, as there is no one on board, but the crew of Artemis 2, scheduled to launch in late 2024, are close to breaking this record.

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

Speaking to reporters at a pre-launch briefing on Aug. 5, Artemis 1 chief flight director Rick LaBrode said that Orion will attempt to launch a Earth rise image similar to those taken during Apollo. The capsule will also take some pictures when it reaches its maximum distance from Earth, LaBrode added.

Orion will begin its departure from DRO on December 1 (Day 16), performing an orbital maneuver at 4:53 p.m. The spacecraft should arrive home on Dec. 11, after which it must survive atmospheric reentry and a splash into the Pacific Ocean.

When all is said and done, Orion will have traveled 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers), in what will be another record — the longest distance ever traveled by a crewed capsule. But that’s not all, as Orion will set records for staying in space longer than any other crewed spacecraft without docking at a space station and for being the hottest and fastest crewed capsule to enter the atmosphere of the planet. reached earth.

Artemis 1 is undoubtedly ambitious, but it has to be. The The Artemis program as a whole serves as a springboard to get humans to Mars, and the things we learn now will inform those future missions to the Red Planet. As an example, Orion will return from the moon at Mach 32, but the capsule, on its return from the Red Planet, will move at Mach 36, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters Aug. 3. A major goal of Artemis 1 is to evaluate Orion’s ability to enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, in what will be an important test of its heat shield.

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

More: Exciting photos from NASA’s SLS Megarocket launch to the moon

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