NASA’s Moon Ship Comes Within 80 Miles Of Moon Traveling Faster Than 5,023 Mph!

Ramish Zafar
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The last image of Orion prior to the communications black out. As is visible, the Moon has almost covered the Earth. Image; NASA

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s Orion spacecraft reached its closest point around the Moon earlier today as the space agency kicked off the ship's outbound trajectory correction flyby early in the morning eastern time today. Orion took off on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket last week in a highly anticipated mission that kicks off efforts to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon. The mission, officially called Artemis 1, is an uncrewed test flight of Orion which aims to check all of its systems as it journeys the farthest for any human rated spacecraft and returns to Earth early next month.

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Orion has been on its way to the Moon since it deployed its solar panels and beamed the first images of Earth within hours of its flight. The journey has seen the spacecraft face several problems as well, ranging from its random access memory (RAM) to its power systems responsible for controlling the avionics or the flight control software. Such problems are natural for a highly complex vehicle such as the Orion, and other spaceships, such as SpaceX's Crew Dragon, have also faced similar problems.

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Its journey saw Orion complete its third outbound trajectory burn yesterday at 07:12 eastern time, and the fourth burn took place at 01:44 am eastern time today. It entered the Moon's sphere of influence - the point where it is fully under lunar gravity pull - at 2:09 pm eastern time yesterday.

The outbound flyby burn saw Orion travel at a whopping 5,023 miles per hour and to roughly 80 miles above the lunar surface (from 328 miles above the surface) at 7:57 am eastern time. The spacecraft was close to the Moon's equator, with the ship flying at a 6.5-degree latitude and longitude of 120 degrees at the time of its closest approach - when its speed increased to 5,102 miles per hour. This low distance is necessary for 'slinging' it into the distant retrograde orbit - a crucial part of the journey and one which was inspired by a planned asteroid mission.

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Flight controllers gave the approval for the burn at 07:23 eastern time, and as part of the mission, Orion passed behind the Moon - or at the dark side. This caused a loss of communication at 07:26 eastern, with NASA having planned for the outbound burn for 07:44.

To power this burn, Orion uses a decades-old engine that has also been part of the Space Shuttle program. This engine is capable of generating 6,000 pounds of thrust, and for the purpose of today's burn, it fired up for two minutes and thirty seconds. However, the engine is also rated to fire for as long as sixteen minutes - leaving potential astronauts on the Orion with plenty of options to maneuver the spaceship in case of an emergency. The engine was first used in 1984 and was retired in 2002. Orion also has eight other engines capable of generating 100 pounds of thrust each.

The burn placed Orion in the orbit, and the duration of the orbit will be six days. Once the orbit is complete, the spaceship will carry out a similar burn that will place it back on its trajectory to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11th. The visuals from today's event were the first time a human-rated spaceship beamed back close-up images of the Moon since the Apollo program.

NASA's flight director Zebulon Scoville explained that the maneuver and the orbit are different from what his agency undertook with the Apollo program. The Artemis program will see NASA explore the Moon's South Pole, and the crewed missions will see them test the vehicle's life support system with a "human in the loop" according to the official. NASA's Apollo-era astronauts had orbited the Moon ten times before coming back to Earth.

Updated 11:42 EST with new details about speed and altitude in the third paragraph. 

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