With no contact on the far side of the moon, NASA’s unmanned Orion crew capsule made a critical rocket launch and flew past the moon on Monday, throwing the craft into a distant orbit for tests that are expected to pave the way for a piloted flight in 2024.
NASA managers met on Saturday, four days after the Orion meetingand gave flight controllers a “go” to perform the Orion “external drive flyby”, a two-and-a-half-minute firing of the spacecraft’s main engine beginning at 7:44 a.m. EST Monday.
Dramatic live video from spacecraft-mounted cameras showed Earth slowly approaching the edge of the moon, then disappearing as Orion lost contact behind the moon at 7:25 a.m. Nineteen minutes later, still out of contact, Orion started the engine on its own as planned.
Minutes later, the spacecraft approached the Moon at an altitude of about 81 miles, returning to contact with flight controllers at 7:59 a.m. A striking image from one of Orion’s cameras showed Earth as a small blue orb floating in the deep blackness of space 230,000 miles away.
Departing, the spacecraft passed almost directly over the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquility about an hour after the launch of the OPF rocket.
The second firing of Orion’s main engine on Friday at 4:52 p.m. will put Orion into a planned “distant retrograde orbit,” or DRO, so named because the spacecraft will move left to right beyond the Moon as viewed from Earth.
Six days later, the firing of the third main engine will send Orion back toward the Moon for a second powered flyby on December 5. The fourth and final burn will put the spacecraft on a return course to Earth with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego expected at 12:40 p.m. EST on December 11.
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