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NASA’s Orion spacecraft comes within 81 miles of the Moon during successful flyby

In brief: NASA’s Orion spacecraft has successfully completed one of two maneuvers needed to enter a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. At its closest point, the craft passed just 81 miles above the lunar body.

Orion launched from the Kennedy Space Center on November 16 as part of Artemis I, the first spaceflight of NASA’s Artemis program. The roughly 25-day mission was expected to start sooner but was met by multiple launch delays. Artemis I is designed to test the Orion craft and Space Launch System ahead of future Artemis missions.

NASA said it reacquired contact with Orion at 7:59 a.m. Eastern on November 21 after it performed an outbound powered flyby burn about 15 minutes earlier. The procedure involved firing the orbital maneuvering system engine for two-and-a-half minutes. This put Orion in position to buzz the Moon at a minimum distance of 81 miles while traveling at 5,102 mph.

During the flyby, Orion was more than 230,000 miles from Earth.

Another burn will take place on November 25 to help insert the craft into a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. It’ll spend about a week in orbit, giving NASA time to test various spacecraft systems. The orbit will send the craft approximately 40,000 miles beyond the lunar body. At its maximum, Orion will be more than 268,000 miles from home.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Deep Space Network, which handles communications beyond low-earth Orbit for Artemis I. The network is comprised of three facilities spread across the globe – one near Madrid, Spain, another just outside of Canberra, Australia, and a third close to Barstow, California.

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Orion is expected to exit its distant retrograde orbit in early December ahead of re-entry and splashdown back on Earth on December 11. Artemis II, the first crewed mission for Orion, is scheduled to launch in May 2024. Should everything go according to plan, it’ll be the first crewed craft to travel outside of low-Earth orbit since Apollo 17 more than 40 years ago.

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