NASA’s Artemis I achieved a key milestone on Monday, making what will be its closest approach to the moon for the duration of its 25-and-a-half-day test flight.
During its closest approach, which occurred at 7:57 a.m. ET, the crewless Orion capsule was just 130 kilometres above the lunar surface.
The encounter occurred about 15 minutes after the spacecraft fired its engine for a two-and-a-half minute burn to enter lunar orbit. The maneuver took place while the spacecraft was circling around the moon’s far side and out of direct contact with Earth.
Shortly before flight controllers temporarily lost contact with Orion, the spacecraft’s cameras showed a poignant image of Earth as a small, blue sphere, about 370,000 kilometres distant, slipping behind the moon’s sunlit horizon.
Contact with the spacecraft was restored approximately half an hour later, just after its closest approach, at which point flight controllers confirmed that the spacecraft had entered lunar orbit as planned.
“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said while awaiting to resume contact.
The $4.1-billion test flight began last Wednesday with a long-delayed but successful launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
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 expected to include a Canadian crewmember for a flight around the moon. A subsequent flight will also include a lunar landing.
During its lunar flyby, Orion’s trajectory took it over the landing sites of Apollo 11, 12 and 14 — humanity’s first three lunar touchdowns.
The spacecraft will now follow a long, looping orbital trajectory around the moon during which various flight systems will be put to the test over the next six days. At its farthest point, the spacecraft will be about 48,000 km 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 December 11.
-With files from Associated Press