CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Orion capsule and its test dummies made a final lap of the moon on Monday, flying over a few Apollo landing sites before returning home.
Orion will aim for a dip in the Pacific on Sunday off San Diego, setting the stage for astronauts on the next flight in a few years.
The capsule passed within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the far side of the moon, using lunar gravity as a slingshot for the 237,000 mile (380,000 kilometer) return to Earth. It spent a week in a wide lunar orbit.
Once out from behind the moon and re-establishing communication with flight controllers in Houston, Orion sent back photos of a close-up moon and a crescent of Earth – Earthrise – in the distance.
“Orion now has his sights on home,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule also passed over the landing sites of Apollo 12 and 14. But at 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) altitude, it was too high to distinguish the descent stages of the lunar landers or any other element left by the astronauts at more than half. one century ago. During a similar flyby two weeks ago, it was too dark for photos. This time it was daylight.
Deputy Chief Flight Director Zebulon Scoville said craters and other nearby geological features would be visible in all images, but nothing else.
“It will be more of a hat-trick and a historic nod to the past,” Scoville told reporters last week.
The three-week test flight has exceeded expectations so far, officials said. But the biggest challenge remains: hitting the atmosphere at more than 30 times the speed of sound and surviving the fiery re-entry.
Orion blasted off Nov. 16 on the first flight of NASA’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS.
The next flight – as early as 2024 – will attempt to carry four astronauts around the moon. The third mission, scheduled for 2025, will feature the first lunar landing for astronauts since the Apollo lunar program ended 50 years ago this month.
Apollo 17 lifted off on December 7, 1972 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, carrying Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans. Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the lunar surface, the longest sojourn of the Apollo era, while Evans orbited the moon. Only Schmitt is still alive.
This story has been updated to show NASA now estimates the Apollo sites flyby was 1,200 miles above the moon, not 6,000 miles.
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