9 stunning images captured by NASA's record-breaking Orion spacecraft
NASA's Orion spacecraft is now on day 10 of the Artemis I mission after the successful launch of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) on November 16, meaning it has had ample opportunity to capture a wealth of stunning imagery of the moon.
The uncrewed capsule cruised within 81.1 miles (130 kilometers) of the lunar surface during its closest approach to the moon earlier this week, and it is now preparing to enter a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) of the moon that will see it fly farther from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft ever has before.
Yesterday, NASA announced that Orion completed its sixth outbound trajectory correction burn at 4:52 pm ET (21:52 UTC) to set it on course for DRO. Here are some of the most impressive images it has captured so far.
Orion's first images show Earth in all its glory
Some of the first video imagery captured by Orion was not of its lunar target. Instead, the moon-bound spacecraft trained its cameras on its origin point, showing our pale blue dot's impressive vantage point as it gradually became smaller.
Only approximately nine hours into the flight of Orion for the Artemis I mission — which is testing the human-rated Orion spacecraft ahead of the crewed Artemis II mission set for 2024 — Orion took a selfie showing the distance it had traveled from Earth.
That image provided an incredible view of the Earth, recalling the view NASA's astronauts from Apollo 8 onwards would have seen of our planet as they made their way to the moon. Apollo 8 was the first crewed mission to fly around the moon and back.
The Orion spacecraft took several selfies during its journey, showing the classic NASA worm logo and the well-known "meatball" logo emblazoned on the capsule.
NASA's Orion spacecraft approaches the moon
The Orion spacecraft is very well equipped to take photographs of the moon. As NASA points out, the spacecraft is "equipped with 16 cameras that will collect valuable data, document mission events, and share a unique perspective of our journey to the Moon."
Each of the spacecraft's four solar arrays is mounted with an off-the-shelf camera that was highly modified for use in space. The solar array cameras allow for impressive views of Orion itself and its surroundings, while front-facing cameras allowed for high-quality images of the moon as the capsule approached.
Five days into its mission, Orion performed the closest planned flyby of the moon, flying 81.1 miles (130 kilometers) above the lunar surface. This allowed it to leverage the moon's gravity to sling itself around our celestial neighbor. It also performed an engine burn while flying over the moon's far side to power itself toward DRO.
NASA's ground team momentarily lost contact with Orion as it flew past the moon's far side. This was expected, however, and the spacecraft performed an automated engine burn. On the same day, the capsule also captured stunning close-up images of lunar craters using its onboard optical navigation camera.
According to NASA's Flickr account description, Orion captured images of Earth and the moon at different phases and distances to test its optical navigation camera under other lighting conditions. The space agency says this will help fine-tune spacecraft orientation for future crewed missions.
For NASA's Artemis II mission in 2024, the Orion spacecraft will perform the same trip around the moon, this time with astronauts aboard. The Artemis III mission, meanwhile, will land humans on the lunar surface — including the first woman and first person of color to go to the moon — for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.
NASA's Artemis I mission will soon break a massive record
Of course, the Orion spacecraft has cameras inside the capsule's interior. In the image below, you can see a mannequin being used to test the effects of space on a human stand-in. A Snoopy plush is also floating around as a "zero-gravity indicator."
Though no humans are flying aboard Orion for Artemis I, the mission will break a record previously held by Apollo 13. If all goes as expected, 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.
To do so, the Orion spacecraft must insert itself into DRO to travel almost 300,000 miles (483,000 km) from Earth, beating the previous record set by NASA's Apollo 13 mission by approximately 30,000 miles (48,300 km).
The DRO, or distant retrograde orbit, gets its name from the fact that Orion will travel in the opposite direction to the orbit of the moon. 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."
Yesterday, the spacecraft performed its sixth outbound trajectory correction burn, the last before insertion into DRO, setting the capsule on its way to breaking a massive record and making history.
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