Orion’s capsule on its way to a close encounter with the moon

Orion’s capsule on its way to a close encounter with the moon

Almost five days after his Sky lighting launch, NASA’s unmanned Orion crew capsule, approached the moon on Sunday, on course for a critical rocket launch and a lunar flyby on Monday to launch the vehicle into a distant orbit. The goal is to pave the way to a manned flight around the moon in 2024.

NASA executives met Saturday and gave the green light to flight controllers to proceed with Orion’s “Outbound Powered Flyby” maneuver, a two-and-a-half-minute firing of the spacecraft’s main engine that began Monday at 7:44 a.m. EST, about 7 minutes after the capsule has passed behind the moon on a trajectory from left to right as seen from earth.

The burn will change Orion’s speed by about 350 miles per hour, committing the craft to a course-changing flyby. And it’s being carried out during the 34 minutes that Orion is out of contact with the air traffic controllers.

A camera mounted on one of the Orion spacecraft's four solar panels captured this

A camera mounted on one of the Orion spacecraft’s four solar panels captured this

Two minutes after Orion passed about 80 miles from the lunar surface at 7:57 a.m., Orion will swing back into contact while whipping around the moon on a trajectory that will carry the spacecraft back toward a planned “distant retrograde orbit.” will, or DRO.

In this planned orbit, Orion will reach a point farther from Earth — 268,558 miles — than any previous manned vehicle, as air traffic controllers test its propulsion, navigation, and power systems.

“We’re going to do the burn…about two and a half minutes from the far side of the moon,” Flight Director Jeff Radigan said. “And the burn will really put us on course for the (planned) distant retrograde orbit where we will continue to check out Orion.

“We’re all going to be really trying to get data because the burn is on the far side of the moon and we lose communication with a vehicle for a while, it’s going to do the burn autonomously. And then ‘ll pick it up and see how Orion is doing.”

Orion’s initial post-launch trajectory was designed to transport the spacecraft around the moon and back to Earth, even if the main engine failed to fire. Once burned, free return is no longer possible and Orion will depend on its propulsion system to make it back to Earth.

A second firing of Orion’s main engine at 4:52 p.m. Friday will place Orion in distant retrograde orbit, so named because the spacecraft will once again be moving from left to right behind the Moon as viewed from Earth. Six days later, on December 5, Orion will be sent back to the Moon for a second flyby using a third main engine.

This fourth and final burn will put the spacecraft on course for Earth, with a landing in the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego scheduled for December 11 at 12:40 p.m. EST.

The main goal of the Artemis-1 mission is to test the Orion heat shield during a high-speed re-entry from the moon, when the spacecraft will experience 5,000-degree heat from atmospheric friction.

Assuming the first test flight goes well and no major problems arise, NASA plans to launch the Artemis 2 mission in 2024 on a Space Launch System megarocket and carry four astronauts on a trip around the moon.

This flight will be followed by the Artemis 3 mission to land the first woman and next man near the moon’s south pole in 2025-26.

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