NASA Orion capsule makes closest approach to Moon
NASA's Orion space capsule reached the Moon on Monday (November 21). Though it did not touch down on the surface of Earth's only satellite, it flew at an altitude of just 81 miles from the surface of the Moon. Orion whipped around the far side of the Moon which remains in dark always. This is the first time a space capsule has visited the Moon since NASA's Apollo program 50 years ago. Orion capsule represents a major milestone for NASA.
The close approach of 81 miles (130 km) occurred 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 did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 232,000 miles (370,000 km) from Earth.
Capsule's cameras clicked picture of Earth.
"Our pale blue dot and its 8 billion human inhabitants now coming into view," said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule accelerated well beyond 5,000 mph (8,000 kph) as it regained radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared above Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
"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.
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 250,000 miles (400,000 km) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 270,000 miles (433,000 km).
Orion capsule has been slated to spend nearly a week in lunar orbit. It will splash down in the Pacific Ocean on 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.