A NASA spacecraft skimmed by the moon’s far side on Monday, notching an important step on a 25½-day journey designed to pave the way for future flights with humans on board.
The mission, Artemis I, marks the debut voyage of the Orion capsule. The US$4.1-billion test flight began last Wednesday with a long-delayed but successful launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., followed by a five-day journey to the moon.
During its closest approach, at 7:57 a.m. ET, the crewless capsule was just 130 kilometres above the lunar surface and travelling at about 8,083 kilometres an hour. At that point, the Orion was circling around the moon’s far side and out of direct contact with Earth.
The close encounter came 15 minutes after the spacecraft automatically fired its engine for a 2½-minute burn to begin its transition to lunar orbit.
Shortly before the spacecraft disappeared behind the moon, its cameras showed a poignant image of Earth as a small, blue sphere, about 370,000 kilometres distant, slipping behind the moon’s sunlit horizon.
“The mission continues to proceed as we had planned ... and we continue to learn along the way about this new deep-space craft,” said Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin during a news briefing on Monday afternoon at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
During the briefing, Mr. Sarafin and others said that no technical issues that have arisen so far during the flight have warranted any change in the mission’s schedule.
The Globe and Mail
The mission is intended as a test of the Artemis launch system and Orion capsule in preparation for a first human flight as early as 2024. That mission, called Artemis II, is slated to include a Canadian crewmember for a flight around the moon.
Artemis III, the next mission in the sequence, is intended to put two astronauts on the lunar surface.
At the briefing, officials confirmed that Orion gathered high-resolution video of the lunar surface during its close pass, data that were later sent to Earth after contact with the spacecraft resumed. Samples of the video were not yet available for public release on Monday.
During its lunar flyby, the Orion’s trajectory also took it over the landing sites of Apollo 11, 12 and 14, though all three locations were in darkness at the time.
Later this week, an additional engine firing is scheduled to put the spacecraft into a long elliptical orbit around the moon during which various flight systems will be put to the test.
At its farthest point, the spacecraft will be about 48,000 kilometres more distant from Earth than the record set by Apollo 13 astronauts in April, 1970.
After a second close pass of the moon, the spacecraft will adjust its flight direction once again for the return trip to Earth, with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean set for Dec. 11.