NASA Set to Put Orion Capsule in Lunar Orbit

NASA’s new lunar mission took a big step forward early on November 21 when the uncrewed Orion capsule fired its main engine to sling itself from just 81 miles above the Moon to tens of thousands of miles from it.

The 2.5-minute “outbound powered flyby” burn of the 6,000-pound-thrust (26.7-kilonewton) Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ10 engine at 7:44 a.m. Eastern U.S. time set up Orion for a second firing on November 25. That burn, scheduled that day for 4:52 p.m., is designed to boost the capsule into a 40,000-mi (64,374-kilometer) orbit of the Moon in the direction opposite that in which that satellite travels around Earth.

Mission managers plan for Orion to spend six days on that “distant retrograde orbit,” whose highly stable nature will support strenuous testing of the capsule before it is cleared to carry astronauts on the third launch of NASA’s Artemis program. Artemis 1 blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center November 16 on the Space Launch System rocket.

“Artemis I is a true stress test of the Orion spacecraft in the deep space environment,” NASA Artemis mission manager, Mike Sarafin, said. With no crew on this first mission, the direct retrograde orbit allows the capsule “to spend more time in deep space for a rigorous mission to ensure spacecraft systems — like guidance, navigation, communication, power, thermal control, and others — are ready to keep astronauts safe on future crewed missions.”

NASA plans to return Orion to Earth with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on December 11.

About the image:

The image above shows a camera on one of Orion’s solar array wings captured the spacecraft approaching the Moon, with the Earth in the distant, on November 21. Credit: NASA TV