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NASA's Orion spacecraft successfully enters moon's orbit

Loren Grush, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

NASA’s Orion capsule, a new spacecraft designed to carry future astronauts to deep space, successfully entered orbit around the moon on Friday.

The uncrewed spacecraft ignited its main engine at 4:52 p.m. Eastern time for one minute and 28 seconds, allowing it to enter what NASA terms a distant retrograde orbit, completing one of the primary goals of the agency’s Artemis I mission.

The mission is intended to show the Orion capsule is functional and safe for humans. The vehicle will now remain in an elongated lunar orbit for the next week, allowing NASA to test how the craft’s hardware holds up in the radiation-filled environment of deep space.

NASA’s Artemis program comprises several missions with the goal of returning people to the moon within the coming decade — the first time since 1972. It also plans to send the first woman and the first person of color to the lunar surface.

Artemis I launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the early morning hours of Nov. 16, when NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket lofted Orion into orbit. The powerful takeoff caused some damage to the launchpad, but the new rocket performed without a hitch, NASA officials said.

“I will simply say that the results were eye-watering,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager, said during a news conference prior to Orion’s reaching lunar orbit. He added that the rocket “exceeded expectations.”

 

After its launch, Orion spent its first five days in space traveling to the moon. On its sixth flight day, the Orion capsule buzzed by the lunar surface, coming within 81 miles (130 kilometers) of the moon, At one point it passed directly over the Apollo 11 landing site, where humans first landed on the moon in 1969.

While passing on the far side of the moon on Nov. 21, Orion ignited its main engine for two and a half minutes, putting it on course to enter lunar orbit Friday. That engine burn, combined with Friday’s, helped Orion get into lunar orbit.

During its time in space, the capsule experienced some minor glitches — what NASA has sometimes called “funnies.” These include problems with Orion’s star trackers, which the capsule uses for navigation through space, and a communication lapse, though none of the mishaps have so far endangered the mission.

NASA’s plan calls for Orion to leave lunar orbit on Dec. 1, fly close by the moon on Dec. 5 and then finally splash down in the Pacific Ocean under parachutes on Dec. 11.

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