NASA’s Artemis 1 Orion capsule is exceeding expectations in deep space and is still on track for a flyby of the moon on Monday (November 21), agency officials said.
The Artemis 1 mission launched on Wednesday morning (November 16), sending an uncrewed Orion toward the moon atop a massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. This is Orion’s first-ever trip beyond Earth’s orbit, mission team members said, but the capsule has been checking boxes like a veteran.
“Orion has been doing great so far,” said Jim Jeffrey, NASA’s Orion spacecraft integration manager, during a news conference Friday afternoon (November 18). “All systems exceed expectations from a performance standpoint.”
Related: Stunning views of NASA’s Artemis 1 moon rocket debut (photos)
Live updates: NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission
Orion will reach the moon on Monday (November 21), traveling 81 miles (130 kilometers) above the gray, dusty surface at 7:44 a.m. EDT (1244 GMT). The mission plan calls for the capsule to perform a 2.5-minute engine burn during this close approach, a maneuver that will clear the way for insertion into lunar orbit four days later.
Members of the Artemis 1 team will decide whether to commit to the “autonomous flight burn” after a meeting on Saturday (November 19). It would be surprising at this point, though, if they ended up changing the plan.
“Right now we’re looking good, and we’re ready to carry on,” Jeff Radigan, Artemis 1 flight director, said during a briefing on Friday.
This is not to say that the trip went completely smoothly. Mission team members said Friday that 13 anomalies, or “burlesques,” have been detected during Orion’s cruise so far.
One such problem was a set of false reads from Orion’s star trackers, which the capsule uses for navigation. This baffled the team at first, but eventually determined that the trackers were dazzled by the glow of Orion’s defenses during the burns. With the cause identified, the team was able to solve the problem, since there were 12 other cartoon toys, which were all minor glitches.
The problems could be more serious for some of the 10 cubes launched on Artemis 1 as payloads. While all of them deployed from the SLS upper stage as planned, only five are now behaving as expected, Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin said during the briefing.
Sarafin said ArgoMoon, BioSentinel, Equuleus, LunaH-Map and OMOTENASHI are “on the road to success.”
The other five—LunIR, Lunar IceCube, NEA Scout, CuSP, and Team Miles—”either experienced technical problems after deployment, had intermittent communications, or, in one case, did not acquire a signal with the origin of the communication that they had planned.”
However, Sarafin stressed that he and the other Artemis 1 team members don’t have the best or most recent information about the Cubes, which are autonomous spacecraft operated by a variety of different groups. Omotenashi, for example, is a small Japanese probe that aims to drop a 2.2-pound (1-kilogram) lander on the lunar surface.
Sarafin also revealed that the Artemis 1 mobile launch tower was somewhat damaged by the SLS, the most powerful missile ever successfully launched.
For example, pressure waves generated by the 8.8 million-pound thrust of the SLS blew blast doors off the tower’s elevators during Wednesday’s liftoff, which was the first-ever giant rocket. (Orion had one flight under its belt before Artemis 1, a 2014 test flight into Earth orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.)
This isn’t exactly a surprise. Sarafin said the team was expecting the SLS to hit the tower a bit. Technicians are not yet able to fully assess the condition of the launch tower, but they are working on it.
“The team goes with a great deal of caution to get the complete system state of the mobile operator, and they’re working their way through that,” Sarafin said.
If all goes according to plan with Monday’s flyby burn, Orion will be poised for another important engine launch on November 25th. This will put the capsule into a retrograde orbit farther from the Moon, which will take Orion up to 40,000 miles (64,000 mi) away. km) from the lunar surface.
The capsule will remain in that orbit until December 1st, when it will perform another burn to set it on course for Earth. Orion will descend quietly under parachutes on December 11 in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast, if all goes according to plan.
Mike Wall is the author of “Abroad (Opens in a new tab)Book (Major Grand Publishers, 2018; illustration by Carl Tate), a book about the search for aliens. Follow him on Twitter @employee (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @employee (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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