NASA’s Orion spacecraft sends back stunning high-definition moon images

The human-rated spacecraft is days away from performing a Pacific Ocean splashdown.
Chris Young
One of Orion's latest moon images.
One of Orion's latest moon images.

NASA 

NASA's Orion spacecraft is on its way home.

The human-rated Artemis I spacecraft made its final flyby of the moon this week as it makes its way back toward Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

As it made that flyby, NASA shared the most impressive images from the mission yet, showing the surface of the moon in all its glory via high-definition images captured by a heavily modified GoPro Hero 4.

Orion's hi-definition moon imagery

Orion captured a number of images of the moon on its first flyby, before inserting itself into the distant retrograde orbit where it achieved the distance record for a human-rated spacecraft. Those images were, for the most part, quite grainy, and they didn't provide the high-definition splendor many were hoping for.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft sends back stunning high-definition moon images
Orion flew within 80 miles of the lunar surface during its return flyby.

That's likely because those images were captured using Orion's Optical Navigation Camera mounted on the front of the spacecraft. Orion features a total of 16 cameras, with a modified GoPro Hero 4 mounted on the tip of each of its four wing-like solar arrays.

Now though, the moment people have been waiting for has arrived as NASA's newest images provide incredible detail, including a close-up view of the far side of the moon.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft sends back stunning high-definition moon images
This image shows the far side of the moon in high definition.

NASA's Orion spacecraft launched atop the space agency's Space Launch System (SLS) on Nov. 16 for the Artemis I mission. Since that time it has flown to the moon and beyond, breaking a record previously held by Apollo 13 for the furthest distance traveled by a spacecraft made for humans.

What next for the Artemis program?

The Artemis I mission kicks off NASA's Artemis program, which ultimately aims to land humans back on the lunar surface and establish a permanent human presence on the moon that will serve as a stepping stone for crewed missions to Mars and beyond.

Artemis I is a test mission that is allowing NASA to collect massive amounts of valuable data ahead of its upcoming crewed Artemis missions. In a November press briefing, Orion Vehicle Integration Manager Jim Geffre said Orion is functioning very well in space, stating that "all of the systems are exceeding expectations from a performance standpoint."

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft sends back stunning high-definition moon images
In some of Orion's images, the Earth can be seen rising from behind the moon.

Three days ago, the spacecraft performed a three-and-a-half-minute engine burn which allowed it to use the moon's gravity to help slingshot it back toward Earth for a splashdown over the Pacific Ocean this Sunday, Dec. 11.

If all goes to plan with Artemis I, NASA's Artemis II mission will be scheduled to go ahead in 2024. That mission will carry astronauts on a similar trajectory around the moon and back. Artemis III, meanwhile, will finally land humans — including the first woman and first person of color to go to the moon — back on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. Both Artemis II and Artemis III will launch using NASA's SLS rocket, though Artemis III will utilize an in-development modified SpaceX Starship rocket as a lunar lander.