NASA’s Orion capsule enters a distant orbit around the moon

A view from Flight Day 9 of the Orion spacecraft shows Earth in the distance. (NASA/ESA)

NASA’s unmanned Orion capsule successfully executed an engine fire to enter an unusual type of orbit around the moon on the 10th day of the week-long Artemis 1 mission, and is expected to set a record of distance on day 11.

During today’s course correction, the orbital maneuvering system engine on Orion’s Europa-built service module fired for 88 seconds as the capsule traveled more than 57,000 miles above the lunar surface.

“It looks like we had a good burn,” NASA spokeswoman Chelsey Ballarte said from Mission Control in Houston.

The shot ensured that Orion will trace out what is known as a distant retrograde orbit, extending as far as 268,552 miles from Earth. On Saturday, the capsule is expected to break the record of 248,655 miles for the farthest distance from Earth traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans into space and safely home. The current record was set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

After halfway through a long-distance orbit, Orion will fire up its engine again to begin preparing for the journey home, which will end with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

The Artemis 1 mission is intended to test the systems and procedures that will be used for human flights to the moon in the coming years, including Artemis 2, a manned mission around the moon planned for 2024; and Artemis 3, which would carry astronauts to the lunar surface no earlier than 2025.

Three sensor-equipped dummies are strapped to Orion’s seats to collect data on temperature, radiation exposure and other factors future Artemis astronauts would feel. There’s also an Alexa-like voice assistant and communication system, codenamed Callisto, which was developed by Amazon and Cisco in collaboration with Lockheed Martin.

No problems were reported aboard Orion on flight day 10. However, six of the 10 small CubeSats deployed during the mission apparently experienced problems. Among the missions in question are the LunaH-Map water-finding probe, the NEA Scout asteroid exploration satellite and Japan’s Omotenashi mini-lander.

On the bright side, the Italian-built ArgoMoon nanosatellite is operational and is sending back impressive images of the moon. Here is a selection of images from ArgoMoon and from Orion’s onboard cameras:

ArgoMoon’s view of the far side of the moon highlights Jackson Crater and the East Sea. (ASI/NASA)
An image from Flight Day 9 of the Orion spacecraft shows a crescent moon in the distance. (NASA/ESA)
This view puts the Orion capsule front and center. (NASA/ESA)
Orion’s Optical Navigation Camera focuses on the Vening Meinesz crater on the far side of the Moon. (NASA photo)
An interior view of the Orion pod shows the Callisto console illuminated with the Amazon Echo’s blue ring. A dummy dubbed Commander Moonikin Campos sits on the left seat, while an astronaut Snoopy dummy used as a zero-gravity indicator floats on the bottom right. (Photo by Lockheed Martin/NASA)

This video from the Orion spacecraft shows Earth emerging from behind the darkened disk of the moon.

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