A test of the Orion abort system. Photo: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O'Connell

The Orion spacecraft — designed to bring astronauts to deep space destinations — is slowly but surely preparing for its first mission to the Moon.

Why it matters: Orion is a major part of NASA's Artemis plans, which are expected to bring astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

Driving the news: The spacecraft passed a key test last week: NASA staged a test of the capsule's abort system, which is designed to pull a crew away from a failing rocket in the moments after launch.

  • That in-flight abort — which NASA says was a success — marks one of Orion's final major milestones ahead of its first crewed mission to the Moon.

Details: The next big test for Orion will be what's known as the Artemis-1 mission, when the capsule — sans astronauts — and huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket fly together for the first time.

  • For that mission — formerly called Exploration Mission-1 — NASA is planning to send Orion on a trip around the Moon and back to Earth, testing the systems the craft will need in space.
  • The first crewed Orion mission is planned for 2022, with the 2024 landing to follow.
  • For the 2024 mission, Orion is expected to fly to the Moon and dock with NASA's yet-to-be-built Gateway space station in lunar orbit. From there, astronauts delivered to Gateway will descend to the Moon's surface aboard a lander.

Yes, but: While Artemis-1 is expected to fly as soon as next year, the timeline is in doubt due to serious delays with both Orion and SLS, leaving little room for further setbacks if NASA intends to meet its 2024 deadline.

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