NASA Spacecraft Finishes Its Close Encounter With the Moon

NASA’s Orion spacecraft passed by the far side of the moon on Monday, passing within 81 miles of the surface.

The spacecraft, which has no humans on board, has been traveling to the moon since Wednesday, when it launched as part of the Artemis I mission. Its journey will take another 20 days.

“The rover continues to perform exceptionally well,” Howard Hu, NASA’s Orion program manager, said during a news conference Monday night.

One of the primary purposes of the mission is to verify that the Orion spacecraft performs as designed, and to allow NASA to make necessary adjustments and fixes before astronauts board for the Artemis II mission, which won’t lift off until at least 2024. The third Artemis mission, involving the Orion spacecraft and a SpaceX vehicle, will aim to bring astronauts to the surface of the moon.

A few minutes before Orion’s closest pass with the moon on Monday, the capsule fired its engine for 2.5 minutes. That sped up its speed as the spacecraft spun into what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit.

The orbit is distant: 40,000 miles above the lunar surface; retrograde means that the spacecraft is traveling around the moon in the opposite direction to the way the moon travels around Earth.

The spacecraft will be there for six days, providing an extended period of time for mission controllers to test Orion’s systems. NASA noted that it would be the farthest a spacecraft designed to carry humans had been from Earth. (The previous record was set during Apollo 13, when the crippled spacecraft had to circle the moon for the return trip to Earth instead of going into orbit.)

Before the flyby, a camera on Orion provided sharp video of the moon growing larger as the spacecraft got closer, capturing a terrestrial ensemble: Earth’s small blue marble sliding behind the moon’s large gray disk in foreground.

With Orion behind the moon, NASA mission controllers lost contact with the spacecraft, as planned. Thus, they did not know that the engine ignition had been successful until Orion resurfaced 34 minutes later.

The spacecraft demonstrated its ability to send live video back to Earth during the flyby, said Judd Frieling, NASA flight director, adding that it would be broadcast more on a NASA website when possible. Orion also took video and images of the far side of the moon while out of contact behind the moon.

“It will take a few days to record those particular images,” Frieling said.

Artemis I lifted off on top of NASA’s new large Space Launch System rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday.

Except for minor glitches, called “fun” by Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager, the Artemis I flight went smoothly. Jokes included Orion’s star trackers being momentarily confused when the spacecraft’s thrusters fired.

“We are in the sixth flight day of a 26-day mission,” Sarafin said Monday, “so I would give it a cautiously optimistic A+.”

The flyby exercised most of Artemis that is not American. Parts of the Space Launch rocket were built by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and United Launch Alliance, while the Orion capsule itself was built by Lockheed Martin.

However, the service module, the part of Orion below the capsule that houses the thrusters, solar panels, communications equipment and other supplies, was built by Airbus and was one of the European Space Agency’s contributions to the program. Artemis. The module will not return to Earth, but will be jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere shortly before the capsule falls.

On Friday, the Service Module’s thrusters will fire again to put Orion into the far retrograde orbit. On Saturday, Orion will surpass the Apollo 13 record of 248,655 miles from Earth for a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts; next Monday, Orion will reach its maximum distance from Earth: almost 270,000 miles.