Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA's Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the complicated trek back home.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.
"Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events," he told reporters at a news briefing. "For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles."
The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. "Artemis builds on Apollo," Nelson said. "Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars."
Cameras mounted on Orion's solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule's Nov. 15 launch atop NASA's giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth's disk - which meant communication links with Earth were temporarily cut off during the eclipse.
Although Orion's view of the moon-over-Earth occultation was remarkable, there are precedents: For example, the Apollo astronauts saw multiple Earthrises and Earthsets - and Orion's cameras did likewise during an earlier phase of the Artemis 1 trip. For what it's worth, a satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory captured views of the moon passing in front of Earth for a partial "eclipse."
And the hits just keep on coming: In the week ahead, Orion is due to execute a series of maneuvers that will involve a second close approach to the lunar surface - providing the mission's first opportunity to take close-up pictures of Apollo landing sites. Those maneuvers will set Orion up for its homeward cruise.
Mission managers said the flight has been going largely according to plan, with just a few "funnies" that have been cleared by the NASA team. For example, engineers determined that a series of resets in Orion's star-tracking system were nothing out of the ordinary in Orion's operating environment.
"We are continuing to proceed along the nominal mission," Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin said.
Some of the most crucial tests won't come until Orion makes its descent to a Pacific Ocean splashdown on Dec. 11.
"The biggest test after the launch is the re-entry, because we want to know that the heat shield works at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, almost half as hot as the sun, coming in at 32 Mach … 25,000 miles an hour," Nelson said.
If the re-entry and splashdown sequence is successful, NASA engineers will check the condition of the capsule and collect the sensor data from three mannequins that were placed into Orion's seats. All those readings will help the Artemis team determine the schedule for the crewed missions ahead.
Artemis 2, tentatively scheduled for 2024, will send astronauts on a 10.5-day mission around the moon. If that shakedown cruise goes well, and if a Starship lunar lander that's currently under development at SpaceX is ready to go in time, NASA would proceed with Artemis 3 in the 2025 time frame.
"We will have four [astronauts] go into a lunar polar elliptical orbit that will then have two of the astronauts in the lander go down to the surface," Nelson said.
The crews for future Artemis missions haven't yet been announced, but Nelson said Artemis 3 will put the "first woman and the next man" on the lunar surface. He has also promised that the landing party will include the first person of color to set foot on the moon.
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