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NASA’s Orion spacecraft readies itself for long journey home

Two weeks after leaving Earth on a mission to the moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft fired its main engine as part of efforts to put it on a course for the long journey home.

NASA official Jim Free shared the news in a tweet on Thursday, saying: “We’ve left lunar orbit! Orion fired its main engine today to exit distant retrograde orbit and set itself on a course for Earth.”

We've left lunar orbit! @NASA_Orion fired its main engine today to exit distant retrograde orbit and set itself on a course for Earth. The burn is one of two maneuvers we'll make ahead of splashdown on Dec 11. Next up? Return powered fly by on Dec 5.

— Jim Free (@JimFree) December 1, 2022

As Free noted, the burn is one of two maneuvers that the uncrewed Orion spacecraft needs to make to get home. All being well, the vehicle will splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Florida on Friday, December 11.

NASA is also continuing thermal tests of a navigation tool known as “star trackers,” which measures the positions of stars to help the Orion spacecraft determine its orientation.

The current Artemis I mission began on November 16 when NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The most powerful rocket ever to have been launched propelled the Orion capsule toward the moon in a mission designed to test all of the flight systems for the Artemis II voyage that will take the same route a couple of years from now, but with astronauts aboard.

During its journey so far, NASA’s spacecraft has come within just 80 miles of the lunar surface and also traveled 268,553 miles from Earth — the furthest point from our planet that a human-rated spacecraft has flown.

The mission sets NASA up nicely for the crewed Artemis II mission, as well as Artemis III, which will endeavor to land humans on the lunar surface for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

NASA is keen to return to the moon for a number of reasons that include a need to demonstrate new technologies, capabilities, and business approaches required for the human exploration of Mars and possibly beyond. It also gives the space agency the chance to broaden its commercial and international partnerships, while at the same time inspiring a new generation of young people to get involved in STEM subjects.

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