NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon on Monday, whizzing around the far side and buzzing the lunar surface on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies standing in for the astronauts.
It is the first time a space capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago and marks a major milestone in the €4 billion test flight that began last Wednesday.
The 81-mile (130 km) approach occurred while the crewed capsule and its three hardwired dummies were on the far side of the Moon.
Because of a half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know whether the critical engine ignition had gone well until the capsule appeared behind the moon, more than 370,000 km from Earth.
The capsule’s cameras sent back an image of the world – a tiny blue sphere surrounded by blackness.
“Our pale blue dot and its 8 billion people are now coming into view,” said mission control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule was accelerating well above 8,000 km/h when it re-established radio contact, NASA said. Less than an hour later, Orion soared over Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969.
“It’s one of those days that you think about and talk about for a long, long time,” Flight Director Zeb Scoville said.
Earlier in the morning, the Moon grew larger in the footage that was broadcast as the capsule traversed the last few thousand kilometers from the taking off from the Kennedy Space Center in Floridaatop the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built.
Orion needed to fly around the moon to gain enough speed to enter the moon’s wide, warped orbit. Flight controllers evaluated the incoming data to determine if the engine ignition went according to plan. Another launch will put the capsule into that elongated orbit on Friday.
This coming weekend, Orion will break NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts – nearly 400,000 km from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching its maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 433,000 km.
The capsule will spend nearly a week in lunar orbit before heading home. The Pacific launch is planned for December 11.
Orion does not have a lunar lander; touchdown won’t happen until NASA astronauts try to land on the moon in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before that, astronauts will strap onto Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.
NASA managers were delighted with the mission’s progress. The Space Launch System rocket performed exceptionally well in its debut, they told reporters late last week.
However, the 98-meter rocket caused more damage than expected on the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The force of 4 million kg of take-off thrust was so great that it tore off the security door of the elevator.