NASA whipped the Orion spacecraft around the moon Monday for a slingshot back to Earth as the Artemis I mission nears its completion.
Orion previously performed a similar maneuver to send it into a lunar orbit that brought it out to the farthest distance flown by a human-rated spacecraft — more than 268,000 miles from Earth. It left that orbit on Dec. 1 moving closer and closer back to moon over the last few days.
Monday’s return maneuver saw Orion fly within 79.2 miles from the lunar surface before making a powered flyby burn to use the moon’s gravity for an Earthbound trajectory.
“For Orion this is not a goodbye, but a ‘see you later’ to the moon, our nearest celestial neighbor, as we begin to get our first glimpse of an Earthrise coming into frame,” said NASA commentator Sandra Jones as the image of the planet could be seen during NASA TV’s coverage of the event. “In this view we see 8 billion human lives all existing upon our pale blue dot, our blue marble, our very own Spaceship Earth, and after a long journey, Orion is now coming home.”
Its closest approach came on the far side of the moon at 11:42 a.m. followed immediately by the burn that brought it back around with Earth in view. Orion’s path as it approached the moon had brought it over several of the Apollo moon landing sites, but still 5,000 miles above the surface, so no details of the Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16 and 17 landing sites were visible.
Shortly after circling the far side of the moon, Orion was a little more than 242,000 miles from Earth with the return trip to take six days concluding with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California scheduled at 12:40 p.m. Sunday.
The nearly 3 1/2 minute burn maneuver using Orion’s Orbital Maneuvering System engine, which previously flew on 19 missions of the Space Shuttle Program, was the last major engine thrust of the mission with just smaller course correction burns on tap before landing. Jones said the burn “went “smoothly, as expected.”
Orion’s re-entry is expected to see the capsule reach a record speed for human-rated spacecraft coming in at 24,500 mph generating temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The uncrewed mission is the first of several planned in the Artemis program with the primary goal of making sure the heat shield can support human passengers for the next mission.
Orion launched atop the Space Launch System rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16, and at landing will have completed a 25 1/2-day mission
Artemis II will take four astronauts on an orbital moon mission as early as May 2024 while Artemis III aims to return humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. That flight is slated for no earlier than 2025.
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