Nov 21, 2022 - Science

NASA's Orion flies just 81 miles above the Moon's surface

Orion (left) sees the Earth (center) and Moon as it makes a close flyby of the lunar body

An image taken on Nov. 21, 2022 shows Orion, Earth and the Moon. Photo: NASA TV

NASA's Orion spacecraft made a close flyby with the Moon on Monday after its history-making launch last week.

Why it matters: The uncrewed capsule — populated with three test dummies — is a pathfinder for NASA as the space agency works to one day send people back to the surface of the Moon for the first time since the final Apollo landing in 1972.

Driving the news: Orion passed just 81 miles above the Moon after an engine burn required for the capsule to get into orbit around the natural satellite this week.

  • The spacecraft performed the burn when it was passing over the far side of the Moon, leaving mission managers waiting for confirmation that it was successful until it passed back into sight of the Earth.
  • “An Earthrise of our pale blue dot and its 8 billion human inhabitants now coming into view,” Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones said as NASA received footage from Orion.
  • Another engine burn planned for Friday should insert Orion into lunar orbit.

Catch up quick: Orion was launched on its journey to orbit the Moon by the Space Launch System rocket on Wednesday.

  • It was the first launch for the Moon rocket after billions of dollars in budget overruns and years of delays.
  • One day, NASA hopes to use Orion, SLS and other pieces of key technology — like a Moon lander built by SpaceX — to send astronauts back to the lunar surface. That first lunar landing could launch as soon as 2025.
  • This Orion and SLS mission, called Artemis I, is expected to test out much of the technology needed to perform that landing, working out the kinks before putting people onboard for the first time for Artemis II, which will see astronauts orbit the Moon before coming back to Earth.

What to watch: Once in orbit, Orion is expected to circle the Moon for about a week before heading back to Earth.

  • NASA will watch closely to see how Orion's heat shield performs as it comes back through the atmosphere on its way to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.
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