NASA’s Orion spacecraft zooms around the moon and sets course for the splash

A crescent of Earth looms above the lunar horizon in an image captured by NASA’s Orion spacecraft (seen in the left foreground). The reddish dot and rays of light are camera artifacts. (NASA/ESA photo)

NASA’s Orion capsule ignited its main engine for three and a half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, performing a maneuver meant to put the spacecraft on track for a splashdown in six days.

Orion came within 80 miles of the lunar surface during what is expected to be the last major maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to be successful in order to return the uncrewed spacecraft to Earth intact. The only other shots on the program are aimed at adjusting the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first-ever liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to pave the way for future crewed missions to the Moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping trajectory that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and extended up to 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

Although there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time, the seats are occupied by three mannequins that have been hooked up to sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels and other factors that may affect future pilots.

There’s also an experimental Alexa-style AI assistant named Callisto, which was designed for NASA by Amazon in conjunction with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground and VIP controllers, including Taraji P. Henson, actress of “Hidden Figures”, used Callisto to check in with the capsule during the mission.

Over the weekend, NASA reported an issue involving a power conditioning distribution unit on the spacecraft. Four of the switches responsible for distributing power to the propulsion and heating subsystems were turned off, but NASA said the components were successfully re-energized with no “adverse effects” on the aircraft’s navigation or communications systems. Orion.

“Teams are investigating whether a potential contributor to this issue relates to a power configuration test implemented by flight crews to investigate previous instances in which one of the eight units opened without command,” said NASA in a status update.

Orion faces what is arguably its most crucial test on December 11, when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and faces temperatures approaching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming the spacecraft’s heat shield holds up as expected, Orion will dive into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego around 9:40 a.m. PT that day.

Once the spacecraft has been recovered, NASA teams will analyze the data from the flight and refine their plans for the Artemis 2 mission, which is to send a crew of astronauts around the moon in 2024-2025. The next mission, Artemis 3, is to send astronauts to the lunar surface no earlier than 2025.

As Orion performed today’s powered lunar flyby, the spacecraft’s cameras captured exciting close-up images of the moon’s surface and snapshots of a distant crescent of Earth. Here is a sample:

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