Orion Spacecraft Completes Final Moon Flyby

The capsule is scheduled to return to Earth on December 11

A photo of NASA's Orion spacecraft, with the moon in the background
In this image from December 4, Orion gets closer to the moon in advance of its December 5 flyby.  NASA

NASA’s uncrewed Orion spacecraft flew just 80.6 miles above the surface of the moon on Monday.

As it passed over the moon, Orion fired its main engine for 3 minutes and 27 seconds, changing its velocity by 655 miles per hour and setting it on a path back to Earth, writes CBS News’ William Harwood.

“The lunar flyby enabled the spacecraft to harness the moon’s gravity and slingshot it back toward Earth for splashdown,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Orion’s current trip is a test flight that NASA is calling the Artemis 1 mission. The journey is in preparation for a potential 2024 Artemis 2 mission which would send astronauts on a similar journey around the moon. Then, Artemis 3, currently scheduled for 2025, will aim to land a woman and person of color on the moon for the first time, according to CNN’s Jackie Wattles.

Artemis 1 is taking place years later than originally planned, and Artemis 3 will likely be delayed, the New York TimesKenneth Chang noted in November.

Four astronauts will fly around the moon as part of the 2024 mission, per Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press (AP). 

The destination of Artemis 3 will be the moon’s south pole, where craters might contain deposits of water ice, per CBS News. The last time astronauts walked on the moon was in December 1972.

NASA's Artemis I Mission Return Trip Lunar Flyby

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket launched Orion to space on November 16 after a hydrogen leak from the rocket was repaired a few hours before launch. Artemis 1 is the first time the rocket has been used, according to Space.com’s Mike Wall. The same spacecraft and rocket will be used for the future Artemis missions as well, per the publication.

Orion flew by the moon for the first time on November 21, according to CBS News. Then, about a week ago, it entered a “distant retrograde orbit” of the moon that carries Orion 40,000 miles to the far side of the moon, per CNN. No spacecraft designed for human travel has reached a farther distance from Earth, according to the publication.

NASA officials have said Orion is meeting the expectations of the mission so far, per Space.com. Now, the spacecraft must pass its final major test—surviving reentry into Earth’s atmosphere as it travels more than 30 times the speed of sound, per the AP. The pressure of reentry will heat the outside of the spacecraft to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to CNN.

Orion is scheduled to land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on Sunday, per the AP. With the help of parachutes, the capsule will have slowed to 20 mph by the time it lands, bringing its 1.4 million-mile journey to a close, according to CBS News.

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