On its approach to a world-record-breaking orbit, NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which had test dummies in place of astronauts, buzzed the moon’s surface and whipped around its far side.
Since NASA’s Apollo programme 50 years ago, no American spacecraft has reached the moon. This marks a significant accomplishment for the $4.1 billion US test trip that started last Wednesday.
The crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies were on the moon’s far side when the 128-kilometer near encounter took place. Flight controllers in Houston could not learn whether the crucial engine firing went successfully until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 370,000 kilometres from Earth, due to a half-hour contact blackout.
The images from the capsule’s cameras depicted the world as a small blue sphere encircled by darkness.
“Our pale blue dot and its eight billion human inhabitants now coming into view,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule accelerated well beyond 8,000 km/h as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said.
Crewed flight around moon may occur in 2024
Orion has no lunar lander; a touchdown won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before then, astronauts will strap into Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.
As the spacecraft travelled its final few thousand miles after departing Florida’s Kennedy Space Center atop the most powerful rocket ever developed by NASA, the moon became larger and larger in the video that was broadcast back earlier that morning.
In order to get enough speed to enter the sweeping, uneven lunar orbit, Orion had to slingshot around the moon. In order to establish whether the engine firing proceeded according to plan, flight controllers assessed the data coming back. On Friday, another firing will put the capsule in that extended orbit.
This coming weekend, Orion will shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — nearly 400,000 kilometres from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 433,000 kilometres.
The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit, before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is planned for Dec. 11.
NASA managers were delighted with the progress of the mission. The Space Launch System rocket performed exceedingly well in its debut, they told reporters late last week.
The 98-metre rocket caused more damage than expected, however, at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force from the four million kilograms of liftoff thrust was so great that it tore off the blast doors of the elevator.
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