What's next for the Orion spacecraft as it heads for the Moon

What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it heads for the Moon

Artist's rendering of Orion passing in front of the Moon, with an Earthrise in the background.

Artist’s rendering of Orion passing in front of the Moon, with an Earthrise in the background.
Drawing: Nasa

from NASA The Space Launch System lifted off on Wednesday, sending the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a 25-day journey to the Moon and back. Orion is expected to reach its destination early next week, when it will perform complex orbital acrobatics and set a number of space records in the process.

We are on day two of Artemis 1, and the the mission seems to be going well. SLS lit up the skies of Florida early Wednesday morning, using its 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel the $20 billion Orion capsule into space. After a successful trans-lunar injection, Orion separated from the rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage approximately two hours into the mission. The capsule, with its faithful companion, the European service module (ESM), are now cruising to the Moon.

The launch alone was spectacular, but there were several exciting milestones ahead of us. Orion is powered by the ESM which, in addition to providing power and regulating temperature, is responsible for making course corrections along the way. The trip to the moon is expected to last about five days, during which mission controllers will closely monitor the capsule’s systems.

Profile of the Artemis 1 mission.

Profile of the Artemis 1 mission.
Chart: Nasa

On Monday, November 21, Orion will be begin the process of entering a far retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon, in which the spacecraft will orbit in the opposite direction to the rotation of the Moon. To get there, the ESM will need to perform a powered flyby outbound at 7:44 a.m. (all times Eastern), at which time the spacecraft will arrive within 60 miles (97 km) of the Moon. This will be Orion’s closest approach to the lunar surface.

The Moon’s gravity will then propel Orion into DRO, sending it 40,000 miles (64,000 km) past the Moon before it returns. The DRO insertion burn is scheduled for November 25 at 4:52 p.m., the 10th day of the Artemis 1 mission.

This distance is 30,000 miles (48,000 km) further than the previous orbital distance record, set in 1970 during Apollo 13. It will also be the farthest distance a crewed spacecraft has (it is i.e. a spacecraft designed to carry human passengers) flew from Earth. As it stands, the Apollo 13 crew have traveled the furthest from Earth of any human, which is some serious bragging rights. Orion won’t break that record during Artemis 1 because there’s no one on board, but the crew of Artemis 2, currently slated for launch in late 2024, is set to break that record.

Orion is expected to break the Apollo 13 record at 8:42 a.m. on Saturday, November 26 (day 11) and reach its maximum distance from Earth at 4:05 p.m. on Monday, November 28 (day 13), when the spacecraft will be 298,565 miles (480,494 km) from home.

Speaking to reporters at a pre-launch briefing on Aug. 5, Artemis 1 senior flight director Rick LaBrode said Orion will attempt to capture a Earthrise image similar to those taken during Apollo. The capsule will also take pictures when it reaches its maximum distance from Earth, LaBrode added.

Orion will begin its departure from DRO on December 1 (Day 16), performing a trajectory maneuver at 4:53 p.m. The spacecraft is expected to arrive home on December 11, at which time it will have to survive atmospheric reentry and a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. .

In the end, Orion will have flown 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers), in what will be yet another record – the longest distance ever flown by a crewed capsule. But that’s not all, because Orion will set records for staying in space longer than any other crewed spacecraft without docking to a space station and for being the hottest and fastest crewed capsule. to hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

Artemis 1 is ambitious, no doubt, but it has to be. The The Artemis program as a whole serves as a springboard to get humans to Mars, and what we learn now will inform these future missions to the Red Planet. As an example, Orion will return from the Moon at Mach 32, but the capsule, on its return from the Red Planet, will travel at Mach 36, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters Aug. 3. A key goal of Artemis 1 is to assess Orion’s ability to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, in what will be a key test of its heat shield.

“We have a lot of testing to do,” Nelson said. He is absolutely right, hence the importance of Artemis 1. The mission is well underway. Let’s hope it stays that way.

After: Heart-pounding photos of NASA’s SLS mega-rocket launch to the Moon

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