NASA's Orion capsule rounded the moon today, marking a crucial milestone in a weeks-long Artemis 1 mission that's preparing the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.
As the uncrewed spacecraft maneuvered for its outbound powered flyby, it sent back a spectacular set of images that showed the moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield, and a tiny blue Earth setting beneath the lunar horizon.
Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center felt "giddy" when they saw the pictures come down.
"They're just happy that all of the hard work and dedication that they've spent for years - many, many, many years - is really paying dividends," he told reporters.
Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was proceeding with "no concerns," other than a few glitches with its power system and its star trackers.
Today's 2.5-minute engine firing, which came five days after the Artemis 1 launch, sent Orion as close to the moon as 81 miles. At the time of closest approach, the spacecraft zoomed over the lunar surface at a speed of more than 5,000 mph. Orion was out of contact with Earth for about 34 minutes as it flew behind the moon.
Another maneuver, scheduled for Friday, will put the spacecraft into what's known as a distant retrograde orbit, stretching 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Such an orbit would be the farthest-out from Earth that a spacecraft designed to carry humans has flown during its mission. (Some commentators noted that the Apollo 10 lunar ascent module, which was jettisoned in 1969 and is now orbiting the sun, is farther out.)
Orion was in the dark during today's closest approach, so there was no opportunity to capture views of the Apollo landing sites as it flew over. But Sarafin promised that NASA will release more great pictures - once they're downloaded from the spacecraft and cleared for distribution. NASA also set up a streaming-video channel to feature live imagery from Artemis 1 when it's available.
The views could be even better when Orion makes another close lunar approach on Dec. 5, during the maneuver for its return to Earth. That trajectory should send the spacecraft over the Apollo sites in daylight.
This uncrewed Artemis 1 mission is meant 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 are sitting inside the Artemis 1 capsule, wired up with sensors that are monitoring temperature, radiation exposure and other factors during flight.
The capsule also has an Alexa-style voice assistant, code-named Callisto, which was created by Amazon in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Cisco. During future deep-space flights, something like Callisto could provide a channel for information and videoconferencing - as well as a HAL-like sort of companionship for crews who might be missing out on real-time contact with folks back on Earth.
"We've had a couple of live technology assessments of the Callisto payload, and it's operating very well across the board," said Howard Hu, who is the Orion program manager at Johnson Space Center. "We're getting good visuals and good communications, thanks to Judd's team allocating some bandwidth. Right now, based on those sessions, things are looking very well with that payload."
Orion is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11, bringing the Artemis 1 mission to a close.
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