NASA’s Orion capsule arrives at moon, just before lunar orbit

Orion’s arrival marks the first time the United States space agency has been to the moon since the 1972 Apollo programme.

Orion capsule approaching the moon
This handout from NASA TV shows NASA's Orion spacecraft approaching the moon on Monday, November 21, 2022 [NASA via AP]

US Space agency NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon Monday, whipping around the far side and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies sitting in for astronauts.

It’s the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo programme 50 years ago, and represents a huge milestone in the $4.1bn test flight that began last Wednesday.

Russia and China also have lunar ambitions, and in 2021 had announced a partnership to build a lunar research station. That appears to be on hold following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Russia was not invited to or mentioned during talks about China’s space plans at the International Astronautical Congress in September.

China has put a lunar rover on the moon, and earlier this month added the final module to its Tiangong manned space station.

Orion is part of NASA’s Artemis programme, which aims to put the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon in the next few years. Orion sat atop the space agency’s most powerful rocket ever, the Space Launch System, or SLS, as it blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the US in the early hours of Wednesday morning, headed for a lunar orbit.

On Saturday, Orion sent back its first photos of the moon.

The close approach of 130km (81 miles) occurred on Monday as the crew capsule and its three wired-up dummies were on the far side of the moon. Because of a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston, Texas did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 370,000km (230,000 miles) from Earth.

The capsule’s cameras sent back a picture of the Earth — a tiny blue orb surrounded by blackness.

“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 8,000km/h (5,000mph) as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969 – becoming the first men on the moon.

SLS Rocket makes an arc in the night sky as it launches from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida
NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion crew capsule, lifts off from Launch Complex 39-B on the unmanned Artemis 1 mission to the moon, seen from Sebastian, Florida, the US, on November 16, 2022 [Joe Rimkus Jr/Reuters]

“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.

Earlier in the morning, the moon had loomed ever larger in the video beamed back, as the capsule closed the final few thousand miles since blasting off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. Flight controllers evaluated the data pouring back to determine if the engine firing went as planned. Another firing will place the capsule in that elongated orbit Friday.

This coming weekend, Orion will shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts — nearly 400,000km (250,000 miles) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 433,000km (270,000 miles).

The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit, before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is planned for December 11.

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.

NASA managers said they 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 (322-foot) rocket caused more damage than expected, however, at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force from the 4 million kilogrammes (8.8 million pounds) of liftoff thrust was so great that it tore off the blast doors of the elevator.

Four previous launch dates had been scrubbed or delayed by engine issues, a hurricane and a tropical storm.

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasts off
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 16, 2022 as part of the Artemis programme [Mike Tracy/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera, AP