space exploration

NASA’s Orion capsule makes its closest approach to moon

Reuters
NASA’s Orion capsule makes its closest approach to moon

ORION. A camera on Orion's solar array wing captures a view of the spacecraft, the Earth and the Moon during the spacecraft's outbound powered flyby of the Moon as part of the Artemis I mission November 21, 2022 in a still image from video.

NASA TV/Handout via Reuters

The capsule's lunar flyby comes a week after Orion reached its farthest point in space, nearly 270,000 miles from Earth while midway through its 25-day mission, NASA says

The uncrewed Orion capsule of NASA’s Artemis I mission sailed within 80 miles (130 km) of the lunar surface on Monday, December 5, achieving the closest approach to the moon for a spacecraft built to carry humans since Apollo 17 flew half a century ago.

The capsule’s lunar flyby, on the return leg of its debut voyage, came a week after Orion reached its farthest point in space, nearly 270,000 miles from Earth while midway through its 25-day mission, the US space agency said on its website.

Orion passed about 79 miles above the lunar surface on Monday as the spacecraft fired its thrusters for a “powered flyby burn,” designed to change the vehicle’s velocity and set it on course for its flight back to Earth.

NASA said the 3-1/2-minute burn would mark the last major spaceflight maneuver for Orion before it was due to parachute into the sea and splash down on Dec. 11.

The last time a spacecraft designed for human travel came as close to the moon as Orion was the final mission of the Apollo program, Apollo 17, which carried Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt to the lunar surface 50 years ago this month. They were the last of 12 NASA astronauts who walked on the moon during a total of six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972.

Although Orion has no astronauts aboard – just a simulated crew of three mannequins – it flew farther than any previous “crew-class” spacecraft on the 13th day of its mission. It reached a point 268,563 miles from Earth, nearly 20,000 miles beyond the record distance set by the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970, which aborted its lunar landing and returned to Earth after a nearly catastrophic mechanical failure.

The much-delayed and highly anticipated launch of Orion last month kicked off Apollo’s successor program Artemis, aimed at returning astronauts to the lunar surface this decade and establishing a sustainable base there as a stepping stone to future human exploration of Mars.

Orion was carried to space atop NASA’s towering, next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which blasted off on Nov. 16 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The mission marked the first flight of the combined SLS rocket and the Orion capsule, built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively, under contract with NASA.

The chief objective of Orion’s inaugural flight is to test the durability of its heat shield as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour, much faster than spacecraft returning from the International Space Station. – Rappler.com

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