NASA’s Orion spacecraft zips around the moon and sets a course for splashdown

A crescent Earth looms above the lunar horizon in an image captured by NASA’s Orion spacecraft (left foreground view). The reddish dot and light rays are camera artifacts. (NASA/ESA photo)

NASA’s Orion capsule fired its main engine for three-and-a-half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, executing a maneuver that should set the spacecraft on course for a splashdown in six days.

Orion arrived within 80 miles of the lunar surface during what is expected to be the last major maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to be successful to return the unmanned spacecraft to Earth intact. The only other layoffs planned are aimed at changing the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to lay out a runway for future manned missions to the moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping course that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and extended up to 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

While there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time around, seats are filled by three mannequins who have been wired up with sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels, and other factors that could affect future pilots.

There’s also an experimental Alexa-style AI assistant codenamed Callisto, which was created for NASA by Amazon in partnership with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground controllers and VIPs, included “Hidden Figures” actress Taraji P. Henson, they used Callisto to control the capsule during the mission.

Over the weekend, NASA reported a technical issue involving a power conditioning distribution unit on the spacecraft. Four of the switches responsible for distributing power to the propulsion and heating subsystems were shut down, but NASA said the components were successfully reactivated with no “adverse effect” to Orion’s navigation or communications systems.

“The teams are investigating whether a potential contributor to this issue is related to a power configuration test implemented by flight crews to investigate previous instances where one of eight units opened without a command,” NASA said. in a status update.

Orion will face what is likely its most crucial test on Dec. 11, when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and faces temperatures approaching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming the spacecraft’s heat shield holds up as expected, Orion will land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego at approximately 9:40 a.m. PT that day.

Once the spacecraft is recovered, NASA teams will analyze flight data and fine-tune their plans for the Artemis 2 mission, which is expected to send a crew of astronauts around the moon in 2024-2025. The next mission, Artemis 3, is expected to bring astronauts to the lunar surface no earlier than 2025.

As Orion conducted its lunar flyby today, the spacecraft’s cameras captured exciting close-up images of the lunar surface and snapshots of a distant crescent of Earth. Here is an example:

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