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The Orion spacecraft, which is at the heart of NASA’s historic Artemis I mission, reached its furthest distance from Earth on Monday afternoon, breaking the record for the furthest distance ever traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans.
The space agency confirmed on Monday evening that the Orion capsule had reached the midpoint of its uncrewed mission around the moon – about 270,000 miles (434,523 kilometers) from Earth. That’s over 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers) beyond the far side of the moon.
The previous record for the greatest distance traveled by a human-rated spacecraft was set during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. This mission, which actually had humans on board, spanned 248,655 miles ( 400,171 kilometers) from our home planet.
The objective of the Artemis I mission, launched since The Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16 is due to test the Orion capsule to its limits, ensuring the vehicle is ready to safely accommodate humans. The test is part of NASA’s larger Artemis program, which aims to bring astronauts back to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s.
There were several hiccups – or “funnies”, like Artemis I Mission Manager Michael Sarafin refers to them – in this mission.
One problem was with Orion’s star tracker, a system that uses a map of the cosmos to tell engineers on the ground how the spacecraft is oriented. Some data readings did not return as expected, but NASA officials attributed this to a learning curve that comes with operating a new spacecraft.
“We’ve worked through this, and the Orion team has shown great leadership,” Sarafin said at a Nov. 18 press conference.
Overall, however, the spacecraft’s performance has been “outstanding,” Orion program manager Howard Hu told reporters Monday evening. The spacecraft exceeds expectations in some respects, such as producing about 20% more power than it really needs, he noted.
Sarafin added that things are going so well that NASA is working to add seven additional mission goals designed to gather more data on the spacecraft’s capabilities and performance.
The spacecraft is now expected to return to the Moon before firing its engines on Thursday to leave its current path and return to Earth. The Orion capsule is about to crash into the Pacific Ocean off California on December 11.
“Artemis I was extraordinarily successful and completed a series of historic events,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday. “Since launch, we have been receiving critical data and there is much more to come. … The biggest post-launch test is re-entry because we want to know that this heat shield operates at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius), almost half the heat of the sun, entering at 32 times the speed of the sound (almost 40,000 kilometers per hour).
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Until the spacecraft is safely back on Earth, there are always risks involved, Sarafin added. He noted that the risk of hitting orbital debris is a constant threat that won’t go away until the capsule reenters Earth’s atmosphere. And even after that, Orion must safely deploy parachutes to ensure a gentle splash in the ocean.
After landing, a NASA recovery ship will wait nearby to transport the Orion capsule to safety.
If the Artemis I mission is successful, NASA will then seek to select a crew to fly on the Artemis II mission, which could lift off as early as 2024. Artemis II will aim to send astronauts on a similar trajectory to Artemis I, flying around the moon but without landing on its surface. The Artemis III mission, currently slated for a 2025 launch, should finally get the boots back on the moon, and NASA officials said it would include the first woman and first person of color to achieve such a milestone.
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