NASA and the European Space Agency has published several new views of the Moon from the human-rated Orion spacecraft as it prepares to burn its engines to reach a point in space a whopping 268,000 miles/432,000 kilometers from Earth.
After launching in on November 15, 2022 after several delays the capsule-style vehicle—reminiscent of the Apollo capsules used by NASA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but much more advanced—got to within just 81 miles/130 kilometers of the lunar surface on November 21, 2022 as it completed the first lunar flyby of its Artemis I mission.
Today it begins a distant retrograde orbit of the Moon that will see it fly further from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft ever has—a voyage into the unknown.
Using 16 cameras on its X-shaped solar array wings, the spacecraft—which is designed to carry up to four astronauts (though this first Moon mission is uncrewed)—captured both photo and videos of itself as it got closer to our natural satellite.
Orion also took a series off black-and-white images of craters on the Moon (as well as of Earth) using its optical navigation camera. Although they are beautiful images, they were taken to calibrate the cameras to help Orion navigate autonomously—something it could now do during future missions.
Orion’s X-shaped solar array wings (SAW) each have a wireless camera near the tip that can be pointed to inspect the exterior of the spacecraft as well as three cameras mounted on the crew module.
The SAW cameras can be rotated to get different views of the spacecraft, hence the different perspectives—including some “selfies” with the Moon as a backdrop and the Earth a quarter million miles away in the distance.
This Artemis-1 mission, which revolves around Orion, will loop around the Moon on a 1.3 million miles/2.1 million kilometers journey and return to Earth on Sunday, December 11, 2022.
It’s now headed for its most distant point beyond the Moon—40,000 miles/64,000 kilometers—which it will reach next week, before looping back to the Moon on its return home.
Expect to see images that portray Orion’s massive distance from the Earth-Moon system in due course as well as—hopefully—a new “Earthrise” image of the Moon in the foreground and the Earth behind it as Orion conducts its second close flyby.
The most famous “Earthrise” image was taken during 1968’s Apollo 8 mission. However, the first “Earthrise” image ever taken was in 1966 by the Lunar Orbiter 1 probe.
Artemis I is the first of three Artemis missions on the schedule, with Artemis II in 2024 slated to take four crew and Artemis III due to take two astronauts— the first woman and the first person of color—to the lunar surface in 2025 or later.
Orion launched on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the largest rocket constructed since the agency’s Saturn V “Moon rocket” was last used in 1973. Standing 322 ft. high, the SLS is also a “Moon rocket,” showing off its 8.8 million pounds (3.9 million kg) of thrust as it lifted the Orion capsule into orbit.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.