NASA's Orion spacecraft flew within 81 miles of the moon, and will soon break a massive record

The uncrewed Orion capsule successfully performed its first main engine burn to sling itself around the moon.
Chris Young
The Orion spacecraft, the Earth, and the moon.
The Orion spacecraft, the Earth, and the moon.

NASA / YouTube 

NASA's Orion spacecraft performed its closest flyby of the moon.

At its closest, it flew 81 miles (130 km) from the lunar surface around the moon's far side. NASA briefly lost communication with the uncrewed capsule in a scheduled event as it made its closest lunar approach.

The Orion spacecraft is making its way toward a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) of the moon, during which it will have to use very little fuel to maintain its flight trajectory due to the stable nature of the orbit.

To make its way toward that orbit, the spacecraft performed the first of four main engine burns it will carry out during the Artemis I mission.

NASA's Orion spacecraft performs the closest lunar flyby

The uncrewed capsule successfully launched to orbit aboard NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) during the launch of the space agency's Artemis I mission on Wednesday, Nov.16. It is the very first mission of the Artemis program, which will eventually send humans back to the lunar surface, and also establish a permanent presence on the moon.

The Artemis I mission is testing the Orion capsule to determine whether it's safe for human flight. If all goes to plan, the Artemis II mission will perform the same journey in 2024 with astronauts aboard. Artemis III will land humans back on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

NASA's Orion spacecraft flew within 81 miles of the moon, and will soon break a massive record
An image taken by Orion's onboard cameras in space.

NASA's Orion spacecraft performed an engine burn lasting 2 minutes and 30 seconds to send it to within 80 miles of the lunar surface. This burn, called the outbound powered flyby (OPF), was performed while Orion was on the far side of the moon and had momentarily lost contact with Earth in a planned event. The Orion spacecraft used its Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engine to perform the burn.

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The OPF allowed Orion to leverage the moon's gravity to sling itself around our closest neighbor and toward the DRO. In four days' time, NASA also aims to perform a second burn to insert itself into DRO.

Orion approaches historic milestone

Orion, designed by the European Space Agency (ESA) in collaboration with NASA, is five days into its mission and is just a few days away from breaking a massive space record.

If all goes to plan, on Nov.28, 13 days into the Artemis I mission, Orion will break the record for the farthest-ever distance traveled by a human-rated spacecraft by traveling almost 300,000 miles (483,000 km) from Earth. It will beat the previous record set by NASA's Apollo 13 mission by approximately 30,000 miles (48,300 km).

In a press briefing last week, Orion Vehicle Integration Manager Jim Geffre said the spacecraft is functioning very well in space, stating that "all of the systems are exceeding expectations from a performance standpoint."

The Artemis I mission will conclude when the Orion spacecraft lands in the Pacific Ocean on December 11. Orion will travel at approximately 25,000 mph (40,000 km/h) while reentering Earth's atmosphere. The re-entry will put Orion's heat shields to the test as the spacecraft will reach temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius) before parachutes deploy to slow it down before it splashes into the ocean and draws an end to NASA's ambitious moon mission. The end of Artemis I will pave the way for an exciting new era of human spaceflight that will help humans go back to the moon, Mars, and beyond.