Orion on its way back to Earth

7th Dec 2022
Orion on its way back to Earth

NASA’s Artemis I Orion spacecraft is nearing the end of its voyage to the Moon and is on its way back home. On Tuesday, 6th December at 1:29 am CST, Orion exited the lunar sphere of gravitational influence and is on a trajectory to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off the coast of California on Sunday, 11th December.

The multi-national project is reaching 25 days in space to demonstrate Orion’s capabilities before sending humans to the Moon. The United Kingdom was integral to the mission, seeing its Goonhilly Earth Station help provide communications support for the launch, track the Orion capsule during its journey, and communicate with the ten CubeSats onboard.

Orion completes flyby

Orion made its second and last close approach to the Moon on Monday, 5th December, passing 80.6 miles above the lunar surface. The three-minute and 27-second burn of its main engine thrusters occurred when the module was flying behind the Moon, meaning it was out of contact with ground control. The burn changed the velocity of the spacecraft by 655 mph and marked the final test flight maneuver before heading home.

“The lunar flyby enabled the spacecraft to harness the Moon’s gravity and slingshot it back toward Earth for splashdown,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “When Orion re-enters Earth’s atmosphere in just a few days, it will come back hotter and faster than ever before – the ultimate test before we put astronauts on board. Next up, re-entry!”

Leaving the Lunar surface

At exactly 4:43 am, Orion performed the fourth return trajectory burn lasting 5.7 seconds, using its reaction control system thrusters. Its return to Earth comes after weeks of mostly successful tests of the spacecraft’s capabilities during spaceflight. At a teleconference on Monday, Mike Sarafin, who is the Artemis mission manager said:

“We got to see the Earth transit behind the moon extending beyond the pale of human spaceflight. We got to see a flyby of the moon as part of the return-powered flyby and witness the Earthrise for the first time in the Artemis generation. When we’re done with this mission, we will have traveled over 1.4 million miles in the course of the 26-day mission. And we are on track to do that.”

Orion has reached several milestones, such as surpassing the distance record from Earth at 270,000 miles away. The distance overtook the previous record held by the Apollo 13 mission, which reached 248,655 miles away from Earth, NASA said.

While Orion has encountered some issues as expected, such as a loss of contact with ground control for 47 minutes on day eight, and a partial power disruption on day 19, the spacecraft has shown great perseverance and is on track to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday.

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