Take a closer look at NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will fly to the moon and back

NASA's uncrewed Artemis I moon flyby will pave the way for missions to Mars.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Orion.
An artist's impression of Orion.

NASA/Liam Yanulis 

If all goes to plan, on Monday, August 29, next week, NASA's Artemis I mission will finally launch toward the moon.

NASA's most powerful rocket to date, the Space Launch System (SLS), will carry the space agency's Orion capsule to orbit, where it will detach and make its way toward the moon and back.

Though the SLS program has faced criticism for going over budget, and for using non-reusable technology, Artemis I will be a historic mission that will play a crucial role in NASA's long-term plans to send astronauts to Mars.

The future of space exploration

Artemis I will pave the way for NASA's first crewed mission to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. It will fly beyond the moon, and "take us farther than we’ve gone before, including to the vicinity of the moon and Mars," NASA says on its website.

“Named after one of the largest constellations in the night sky and drawing from more than 50 years of spaceflight research and development," NASA continues, "the Orion spacecraft is designed to meet the evolving needs of our nation's deep space exploration program for decades to come."

Orion's trajectory will take it far beyond the moon, and it's something that's been carefully planned by NASA and its partners, including Draper, which won the first Apollo 11 contract in the 60's. Draper will provide advanced guidance, navigation, and control for Artemis I. The Orion Crew Module, meanwhile, was built by Lockheed Martin, while the European Service Module was built by Airbus Defence and Space.

For Artemis I, Orion will perform a crewless flyby of the moon. Shortly after launch, it will detach from SLS and deploy into low Earth orbit. After orbiting Earth, Orion will be slung towards the moon, where it will perform a number of main engine burns to alter its trajectory before making its way back towards Earth.

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If Artemis I does launch on August 29, it is expected to return and make a splashdown over the Pacific Ocean on October 10. The mission will have lasted approximately 42 days. Artemis II will send astronauts on the same journey around the moon, aboard Orion. For Artemis III, however, NASA has contracted SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle to send astronauts back to the surface of the moon.

A closer look at NASA's Orion capsule

In a video posted by NASA, the U.S. space agency shows off the details of its Orion capsule. The spacecraft is the first designed by NASA to send — up to four — astronauts into deep space. Orion's main engine emits 6,000 pounds of thrust, while its eight auxiliary engines each offer up to 110 pounds of thrust.

Orion's launch abort system is designed to propel the crew capsule away from a potential SLS crash or anomaly. The system reacts within milliseconds to any issue. If deployed, the crew capsule should be safely jettisoned to perform a parachute-assisted landing. Orion will also feature four seven-meter-long solar wings, each of which will have 3,750 solar cells.

SLS and Orion are now on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, meaning NASA is now gearing up for the launch of Artemis I. Stay posted for live updates, and here's how you can watch the launch live.

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