December 9, 2022

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What's next for the Orion spacecraft as it sails towards the Moon

What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it sails towards the Moon

Artist's illustration of the planet Gemini traveling across the Moon, with the Earth rising in the background.

Artist’s illustration of the planet Gemini traveling across the Moon, with the Earth rising in the background.
Clarification: NASA

NASA agency The Space Launch System took off on Wednesdayand sending the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a 25-day voyage to the Moon and back. Orion should reach its destination as early as next week, at which time it will perform some complex orbital acrobatics and set a number of spacefaring records in the process.

We are on the second day of Artemis 1 and The job seems to be going well. The SLS lit up the Florida skies early Wednesday morning, using 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel the $20 billion Orion capsule into space. After successful translunar injection, Orion separated from the rocket’s temporary cryogenic propulsion stage about two hours into the mission. The capsule, with its faithful companion, European Service Unit (ESM), now sailing to the moon.

The launch alone was amazing, but there were so many great milestones ahead. Orion is propelled by the ESM, which, in addition to providing power and regulating temperature, is responsible for making trajectory corrections along the way. Le voyage dan la lune is expected to last about five days, during which time mission controllers will keep close tabs on the capsule systems.

Artemis 1 mission profile.

Artemis 1 mission profile.
Draw: NASA

On Monday, November 21, Orion Starting the entry process into a far retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon, in which the spacecraft rotates in the opposite direction of the Moon’s rotation. To get there, the ESM will need to perform a powered external atmospheric burn at 7:44 AM (all times east), at which time the spacecraft will come 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) beyond the Moon before it turns back. 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) farther than the previous orbital distance record, set in 1970 during Apollo 13. It’ll also be the farthest distance that a crew-rated spacecraft (i.e., a spacecraft designed to handle human passengers) has flown from Earth. As it stands, the Apollo 13 crew traveled the farthest from Earth of any humans, which is some serious bragging rights. Orion won’t break this record during Artemis 1, as there’s no one on board, but the crew of Artemis 2, currently scheduled to launch in late 2024, is poised to smash this record.

Orion is set 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), at which point the spacecraft will be 298,565 miles (480,494 km) from home.

Speaking to reporters during a pre-launch briefing on August 5, Rick LaBrode, lead Artemis 1 flight director, said Orion will attempt to capture an Earthrise image Similar to those taken during Apollo. Labrod added that the capsule will also take some pictures when it reaches its maximum distance from Earth.

Orion will begin its departure from the DRO on Dec. 1 (Day 16), with a trajectory maneuver performed at 4:53 p.m. The spacecraft should get home on December 11, by which time it will need to survive a re-entry into the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

When all is said and done, Orion will have traveled 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km), in what will be another record – the longest distance traveled by a crew-class capsule. But that’s not all, as Orion will set records for staying in space longer than any other crew-rated spacecraft without docking with a space station and for being the hottest and fastest crew-rated capsule to hit Earth’s atmosphere.

Artemis 1 is undoubtedly ambitious, but it should be. The The Artemis program as a whole is a stepping stone to getting humans to MarsAnd the things we learn now will inform those future missions to the Red Planet. For example, Orion will return from the Moon at Mach 32, but the capsule, upon returning from the Red Planet, will travel at Mach 36, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters Aug. 3. One of the main goals 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’s absolutely right, hence the importance of Artemis 1. The mission is off to a great start. Lets hope it stays that way.

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