Artemis I passes 81 miles above the lunar surface before heading a record-breaking distance from Earth

Earth is seen setting on the far side of the Moon behind the Orion spacecraft in this video captured on day 6 of the Artemis I mission by a camera on the edge of one of Orion’s solar arrays. The spacecraft was preparing for a powered-out Flyby maneuver that would bring it within 80 miles of the lunar surface, the closest approach of the uncrewed Artemis I mission, before moving into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. The spacecraft entered the field of lunar influence on Sunday, November 20, making the Moon, rather than the Earth, the main gravitational force acting on the spacecraft.

Just like the James Webb Space Telescope, it took scientists and engineers years and multiple launch attempts to get the Artemis I SLS rocket and its Orion spacecraft up in the air. After four launch attempts over the course of two months, the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA successfully launched just last week. Good things are now coming to those who have waited: the mission is running smoothly, and soon the spacecraft will be farther from Earth than any other human-transporter has ever gone.

On Monday, Orion passed just 81 miles above the lunar surface while traveling at 2,128 miles per hour. So close, yet so far away. The burn pushed that speed to 5,102 mph as the spacecraft made its way over the former landing sites of Apollo 11, 12 and 14, according to NASA. Here are some additional facts and figures that will totally blow your mind:

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Orion will travel about 57,287 miles beyond the Moon at its farthest point from the Moon on November 25, surpassing the record set by Apollo 13 for the farthest distance traveled by a spacecraft designed for humans at 248,655 miles from Earth on Saturday, November 26. It will reach its greatest distance from Earth, which is 268,552 miles, on Monday, November 28.

As of Monday, November 21, a total of 3,715.7 pounds of propellant have been used, 76.2 pounds less than previously expected values. There are 2,112.2 pounds of margin available on-plan for during-mission use, an increase of 201.7 pounds from expected pre-running values.

After 2:45 p.m. CST on November 21, Orion has traveled 216,842 miles from Earth and was 13,444 miles from the Moon, traveling at 3,489 miles per hour.

The Artemis I mission is the uncrewed first step back to the Moon for the United States, and it will spend about 25 days doing a few loops around the Moon before returning to Earth. The Orion spacecraft and the new spacesuits on board will be pushed to their limits while more than a quarter of a million miles from Earth. The next step, Artemis II, is scheduled for sometime in 2025 and will involve a four-man crewed flight around the moon and will take humans the farthest ever into space. By 2026, we’ll have boots on the as yet undiscovered lunar south pole.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

The goal of the Artemis missions is not just an opportunity to revisit the moon, but to establish a permanent lunar base in orbit that will allow astronauts to spend weeks or even months exploring the moon as well as serve as a springboard for further exploration of our solar system.

Despite early SNAFUs delaying launch in August, September and October, Orion program director Howard Ho told reporters Monday that the Artemis 1 flight “…continues to operate exceptionally” from The New York Times:

With the exception of a few minor glitches — Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin called them “fun” — Artemis I’s flight ran smoothly. Gags included Orion’s star trackers getting confused for a moment as the spacecraft’s thrusters fired.

“We are on the sixth flight day of a 26-day mission, so I would give it a cautiously optimistic A+,” Mr. Sarafin said Monday.

March of Flight A major piece of Artemis is not American. The Space Launch rocket parts are built by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and the United Launch Alliance while the Orion capsule itself is built by Lockheed Martin.

However, the service module—the part of Orion beneath the capsule that houses the thrusters, solar arrays, communications equipment, and other supplies—was built by Airbus, and was one of the European Space Agency’s contributions to the Artemis programme. The module would not return to Earth, but instead would be jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere shortly before the capsule dispersed.

The Orion spacecraft is expected to return to Earth on December 11 with a touchdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

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