The performance of NASA’s Orion spacecraft has exceeded the agency’s expectations — and the Artemis I mission isn’t even over yet.
After departing the Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on November 16, the uncrewed Orion passed over the surface of the moon at an altitude of just 81 miles. It then entered what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit where it stayed for several weeks, and is now about to begin its voyage home.
The Artemis I mission is designed to test the new rocket and spacecraft ahead of the crewed Artemis II mission, which could take place as early as 2024. After that, Artemis III will put astronauts on the moon in the first human landing since the final Apollo mission in 1972. But NASA’s Artemis program has even bigger goals, as it plans to build the first moon base for long-term astronaut stays on the lunar surface, and could also use the moon as a stepping stone for the first crewed mission to Mars, and even beyond.
With all that in mind, there’s a lot resting on Orion’s journey home this week.
Once Orion starts heading home after exiting the lunar sphere of influence on Tuesday, December 6, it will speed through space for five days before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
NASA set up a website allowing anyone interested in the Artemis I mission to track Orion during the entirety of its trip. The Artemis Real-time Orbit Website (AROW) will also follow the spacecraft all the way home over the next week.
AROW’s data includes the mission’s elapsed time, the velocity of the spacecraft, its distance from the moon, and its distance from Earth.
The page also includes an image of the Orion capsule that you can drag around to view the vehicle from multiple angles, and also to see its position in relation to the moon and Earth. Be sure to select the “mission view” button at the bottom left of the display, too, so you can see the precise path taken by the Orion during its time in space so far.
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