NASA’s Artemis I Orion spacecraft enters lunar orbit – a critical step toward sending astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972

Part of the far side of the Moon looms large as Orion approaches on Nov. 21, 2022.NASA

For the first time in half a century, NASA has a spacecraft designed for human passengers in orbit around the moon.

The new Orion spacecraft is on its first lunar flight, a mission dubbed Artemis I, to prove it can carry astronauts on its next trip around the moon.

Then, on its third trip, NASA aims to land astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

Aiming for 2025, this new moon landing is just the beginning of NASA’s plans to build a permanent base on the moon and set up a new space station in lunar orbit. From there, the agency plans to send astronauts to Mars.

black and white lunar surface close up craters

Orion’s optical navigation camera captured black-and-white images of craters on the moon below.NASA

“This time we’re going back to the moon to live, learn, develop the technologies, equipment, tools and systems to venture further afield,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told Insider in August.

For now, Orion is hurtling around the moon with a set of dummies inside, testing its systems and the levels of deep-space radiation that could affect future astronauts. NASA’s big lunar plans, its ambitions to later send astronauts to Mars, and $50 billion in investment are riding on the success of this mission, which launched on Nov. 15. NASA began building its Orion spacecraft in 2005.

On Friday, flight controllers ordered the spacecraft to fire its maneuvering motor and thrust into an orbit around the moon that should take it 268,552 miles from Earth, farther than any spacecraft designed for human passengers ever is. left.

Orion’s greatest test is yet to come: returning to Earth

spaceship with nasa written above it in space with the moon in the distance

The Orion spacecraft with the moon beyond was captured by a camera at the tip of one of Orion’s solar arrays, Nov. 20, 2022.NASA

Entering a cruise around the moon is a major milestone in the mission. But Artemis I won’t succeed until Orion fires its engines again to fly back toward Earth, survives a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, and splashes safely into the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

This is the biggest test of the mission. It’s absolutely imperative that the heat shield, a protective barrier at the bottom of the capsule, keeps Orion intact and protects all astronauts inside from the scorching plasma that gathers around it as it screams through the atmosphere.

“If we do nothing but this, it will be a successful mission,” Nelson said. “We’re testing this new heat shield and new material for the first time, and that’s the primary focus.”

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