Orion capsule approaching the Moon

Orion capsule breaks space record

Image credit: Nasa

The first spacecraft to launch as part of Nasa's Artemis programme has reached a distance of 430,000km (270,000 miles) from the Earth - the furthest any spacecraft designed to carry humans has ever travelled.

The Orion capsule has reached the midpoint of its uncrewed mission around the Moon, travelling more than 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometres) beyond the far side of the Moon.

The previous record for the farthest a human-rated spacecraft has travelled was set in 1970, during the Apollo 13 mission that saw humans walking on the Moon for the first time. The spacecraft carrying these astronauts travelled 248,655 miles (400,171 kilometres) from Earth. 

Instead of three men, Orion carried three dummy astronauts, four Lego mini-figures, a cuddly Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep to this historic distance. The trial flight is part of Nasa's Artemis programme, which aims to take humans back to the Moon and establish a lunar colony in the Earth’s only natural satellite. 

During this part of the mission, the spacecraft also captured imagery of Earth and the Moon together throughout the day, including of the Moon appearing to eclipse Earth. 


Orion capsule approaches the Moon

Orion capsule approaches the Moon / Nasa

Image credit: Nasa


After several failed attempts, the Orion capsule was launched by Nasa's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from the agency’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. 

The SLS is the most powerful rocket Nasa has ever built. The megarocket’s 8.8 million pounds of thrust (39.1 million newtons) at launch is 13 per cent more than the Space Shuttle and 15 per cent greater than the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions. Each of the two boosters generates more thrust than 14 four-engine commercial airliners, according to Nasa. It’s also powered by four RS-25 engines, with the outbound trip to the Moon taking several days.

However, the mission has not gone completely without hiccups. 

During the mission, Nasa officials noticed that some readings on Orion's star tracker weren’t coming back as expected. However, the inconsistencies were chalked up to a learning curve that comes with operating a new spacecraft.

On another occasion, controllers lost communication with the capsule for 45 minutes. but this was determined to be an issue related to the configuration of equipment on Earth.


Interior of Orion capsule

Interior of Orion capsule / Nasa

Image credit: Nasa


Monday's milestone marks the middle point of the Artemis I mission, which is scheduled to last 42 days, three hours and 20 minutes. Overall, the spacecraft will travel 1.3 million miles

"This halfway point teaches us to number our days so that we can get a heart of wisdom," said Mike Sarafin, Nasa's Artemis mission manager. "The halfway point affords us an opportunity to step back and then look at what our margins are and where we could be a little smarter to buy down risk and understand the spacecraft's performance for crewed flight on the very next mission."

To date, flight controllers have accomplished or are in the process of completing 37.5 per cent of the test objectives associated with the mission, with many remaining objectives set to be evaluated during entry, descent, splashdown, and recovery. 

“Because of the unbelievable can-do spirit, Artemis I has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” said Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson. “It’s incredible just how smoothly this mission has gone, but this is a test. That’s what we do – we test it and we stress it.” 


Picture of the Moon taken by Orion

Picture of the Moon taken by Orion /Nasa

Image credit: Nasa


As Orion approaches its date of re-entry, the space organisation's officials have begun making preparations for this vital point of the mission. 

Nasa’s Exploration Ground Systems team and the US Navy are beginning initial operations for the recovery of Orion when it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. The team will deploy Tuesday for training at sea before returning to shore to make final preparations ahead of splashdown. 

"Of course, Artemis builds on Apollo," Nelson said.  "Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.

Pending the mission’s success, Artemis 2 will take a similar path to that of Artemis 1, only with humans aboard. In contrast, Artemis 3 is expected to reach the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17 landed there in December 1972.

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