NASA’s 280,000 Mile Journey To The Moon With A Fiery End Explained

Ramish Zafar
NASA's Orion spacecraft rendered during its atmospheric reentry. Image: NASA/Liam Yanulis

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is all set to launch its Artemis Moon mission next month. This mission will launch the Orion spacecraft to the Moon's orbit, a journey that will see the spacecraft travel hundreds of thousands of miles before it returns to the Earth. As part of its lunar journey, Orion will follow what is called a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO), which will allow it to spend sufficient time orbiting the Moon to ensure that all of its systems are working and are capable of supporting the next mission that will see a crew also make their way to lunar orbit before returning to Earth.

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Will Travel 30,000 Miles Beyond The Moon As Part of Its Test Flight

The Artemis 1 mission was originally slated to take to the skies in late August, but problems with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket's temperature sensors forced NASA to call off the attempt as the faulty reading presented a potential risk with the engine. The next launch attempt, in September, was scrubbed as the tricky Hydrogen fuel that powers the rocket's engine continued to leak to dangerously high levels.

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After the second launch attempt, engineers fixed the rocket while it was on the pad, and successfully tested it despite being bamboozled at the end,  but then fate struck in the form of hurricane Ian that forced them to stand down and roll the rocket back to its launch pad. Now that they have set a new launch date of November 14th, the Orion spacecraft is ready to fly to the Moon in what NASA calls a Distant Retrograde Orbit.

This orbit was first studied as part of an asteroid redirect test, through which NASA had hoped to redirect an asteroid near the Earth and redirect it to orbit the Moon instead. At that time, scientists had estimated that if the asteroid was placed in a DRO, then it could potentially orbit the Moon for hundreds of years due to its stability of the asteroid.

A NASA graphic describing the steps that the Orion spacecraft will take during its lunar journey.

The Asteroid Redirect Missin (ARM) was a precursor to NASA's planned Martian missions, as through it the agency had hoped to evaluate the operation of a 'space tug.' It originally aimed to reduce the costs of transporting crew to the Red Planet, intending to send the cargo first through an electrically powered ion propulsion engine. ARM would test these engines, and as a bonus, also place an asteroid around the Moon in a DRO.

This orbit is stable because it includes the two equilibrium points between the Earth and the Moon that allow for objects to use the balance between the two celestial bodies' gravity to balance themselves out. In short, this 'balance' requires minimal effort from the spacecraft to ensure that gravity does not significantly affect its trajectory. In celestial mechanics, these points are called the Lagrangian points, named after the Italian mathematician Joeseph-Louis Lagrange.

After it separates from the SLS rocket, the Orion will travel 240,000 miles to the Moon and then an additional 40,000 miles beyond it to the farthest point in the DRO. It will spend close to three weeks orbiting the Moon, and during this time, the myriad of systems on board such as navigation, guidance, communications, power and life support will be tested before the next mission takes astronauts to a lunar orbit.

The return journey will see the spacecraft's heat shield reach an eye-watering 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature as it travels at a speed of 25,000 miles per hour. As it enters the Earth's atmosphere, Orion will use a skip reentry profile - through which it will 'jump' at the higher levels of the atmosphere before attempting to land in the Pacific Ocean.

Here's a NASA visual showing the month-long journey in just 30 seconds:

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