Home / Science / News /  NASA's Orion capsule reaches Moon, likely to find orbit by Friday

On its way to a record-breaking lunar orbit, NASA's Orion spacecraft arrived at the moon on Monday, whirling around its backside and passing within 80 miles (128 kilometres). The crew capsule, along with its three test dummies, were on the moon's far side when the close approach took place.

When the capsule emerged from behind the moon, more than 232,000 miles (375,000 kilometres) from Earth, flight controllers in Houston were unable to determine whether the crucial engine firing went as planned due to the half-hour communication blackout.

It marked a significant accomplishment in the $4.1 billion test flight that got under way last Wednesday and marked the first time a capsule has been to the moon in fifty years. The first three lunar landings by humanity, Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 14, were all flown over by Orion.

In the video that was transmitted earlier that morning, the moon grew larger and larger as the spacecraft travelled its final few thousand miles after taking off last Wednesday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center atop the most potent rocket that NASA has ever produced.

“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 while awaiting to resume contact.

Onboard cameras captured a picture of Earth as the capsule emerged from the shadow of the moon, showing it as a blue dot surrounded by darkness.

In order to gain enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit, Orion had to slingshot around the moon. If everything goes according to plan, the capsule will be in that orbit by Friday after another engine firing.

The record for the furthest distance travelled by a spacecraft designed for astronaut was set by Apollo 13 in 1970 at nearly 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometres). This record will be broken by Orion on the coming weekend. And it will continue to travel, getting close to 270,000 miles from Earth at its farthest next Monday (433,000 kilometers).

Before returning to Earth, the capsule will stay in lunar orbit for almost a week. On 11 December, there will be a splashdown in the Pacific.

Until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing with SpaceX's Starship in 2025, Orion will not have a lunar lander. However, as early as 2024, astronauts will strap into Orion for a trip around the moon.

Managers at NASA were thrilled with how the mission was coming along. They informed reporters late last week that the Space Launch System rocket performed remarkably well in its debut. But at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad, the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket did more harm than anticipated. The elevator's blast doors were torn off by the force of the 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilogrammes) of liftoff thrust.

(With inputs from AP)

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