(Image credit: NASA TV)
NASA’s Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft is now orbiting the moon.
Orion had been making its circuitous way to Earth’s nearest neighbor since launching last Wednesday (Nov. 16) on NASA’s Artemis 1 mission. On Friday afternoon (Nov. 25), the capsule finally reached its destination.
Orion performed an 88-second engine burn Friday at 4:52 p.m. EST (2152 GMT) that successfully inserted the spacecraft into a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the moon as planned.
“Shortly before conducting the burn, Orion was traveling more than 57,000 miles [92,000 kilometers] above the lunar surface, marking the farthest distance it will reach from the moon during the mission,” NASA officials wrote in an update (opens in new tab) shortly after the burn ended. “While in lunar orbit, flight controllers will monitor key systems and perform checkouts while in the environment of deep space.”
The DRO takes Orion about 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the moon at its most distant point. As it travels that path, the capsule will set a new record, getting farther from Earth than any previous human-rated spacecraft.
The current mark of 248,655 miles (400,171 km) is held by NASA’s Apollo 13 mission, which wasn’t meant to travel that far. Apollo 13 looped around the moon rather than land on the body after an oxygen tank in the spacecraft’s service module failed in deep space.
Orion will break Apollo 13’s record on Saturday morning (Nov. 26), NASA officials said. But the capsule will continue putting Earth in its rear-view mirror for two more days, reaching a maximum distance of 272,515 miles (438,570 km) on Monday (Nov. 28).
Orion will spend a little less than a week in the DRO. The capsule will leave lunar orbit with an engine burn on Dec. 1, then start heading home to Earth. Orion will arrive here on Dec. 11 with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast, if all goes to plan.
The nearly-26-day Artemis 1 mission is designed to vet Orion and NASA’s huge Space Launch System rocket, which sent the capsule skyward last week, ahead of planned crewed missions to the moon.
The first of those astronaut flights, Artemis 2, will send Orion around the moon in 2024. Artemis 3 will then put boots down near the lunar south pole in 2025 or 2026. Further landed missions will follow, as NASA builds a crewed research outpost in the south polar region — a key objective of its Artemis program.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).