The Orion capsule observes the moon eclipsing the Earth at the furthest point of Artemis’ odyssey

A camera on NASA's Orion capsule captures an image of the moon covering part of the Earth's disk.  (NASA/ESA photo)

A camera on NASA’s Orion capsule captures an image of the moon covering part of the Earth’s disk. (NASA/ESA photo)

Halfway through its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a strange kind of Earth-Moon eclipse, reached its furthest distance from our planet, and began the complicated journey back to Earth. home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has marveled at the achievements in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has been extraordinarily successful and has completed a series of historic events,” he told reporters at a news conference. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion broke the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. …And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, recording its furthest distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 in 1970. “Artemis is based on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going further and getting home faster, Artemis is paving the way for living and working in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, create and ultimately move forward with humans on Mars.”

Cameras mounted on the wings of Orion’s solar panel have recorded images of the Earth, the Moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule was launched Nov. 15 atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture images of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk, which meant communication links with Earth were temporarily severed during the eclipse.

While Orion’s view of the Moon’s occultation above the Earth was remarkable, there are precedents: for example, Apollo astronauts saw more ascents and sunsets than Earth – and Orion’s cameras did the same during one phase earlier than Artemis 1’s journey. For what it’s worth, a satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory has captured images of the moon passing in front of Earth for a partial “eclipse.”

And the successes keep coming: In the week ahead, Orion is expected to perform a series of maneuvers that will involve a second close approach to the lunar surface, providing the mission’s first opportunity to take close-up photos of the Apollo landing sites. These maneuvers will prepare Orion for her return cruise.

Mission managers said the flight went largely according to plan, with only a few “amusing” ones being clarified by the NASA team. For example, engineers determined that a series of resets in Orion’s star tracking system was nothing out of the ordinary in the Orion operating environment.

“We are continuing along the nominal mission,” said Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin.

Some of the most crucial tests won’t come until Orion drops into the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

“The biggest test after launch is re-entry, because we want to know that the heat shield is operating at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly half as hot as the sun, going up to Mach 32…25,000 miles per hour,” Nelson said.

If the reentry and splashdown sequence is successful, NASA engineers will check the condition of the capsule and collect sensor data from three mannequins that have been placed in Orion’s seats. All of these readings will help the Artemis team determine the schedule for future manned missions.

Artemis 2, tentatively scheduled for 2024, will send astronauts on a 10.5-day mission around the moon. If that shakedown cruise goes well, and if a Starship lunar lander currently in development at SpaceX is ready to launch in time, NASA will move forward with Artemis 3 in the 2025 timeframe.

“We will have four [astronauts] enter a lunar polar elliptical orbit which will then bring two of the astronauts in the lander to the surface,” Nelson said.

Crews for future Artemis missions have not yet been announced, but Nelson said Artemis 3 will bring the “first woman and the next man” to the lunar surface. He has also promised that the landing party will include the first black person to set foot on the moon.

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