Orion capsule watches the moon eclipse Earth at farthest point of Artemis odyssey

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A camera on NASA's Orion capsule views the moon covering part of the Earth's disk. (NASA/ESA photo)
Midway on its 25.5-day unmanned Artemis-1 mission today, NASA's Orion capsule recorded a strange type of Earth-Moon eclipse, reaching its furthest distance from our planet and beginning the complicated journey back home.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, which aims to have astronauts on the lunar surface as early as 2025.
"Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success, completing a number of historical events," he told reporters at a news conference. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered this orbit for Artemis, a so-called distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a spacecraft mission designed to launch humans into space. ...And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, reaching its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”
The mission is reminiscent of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 in 1970. "Artemis builds on Apollo," Nelson said. "Not only are we going farther and getting home faster, but Artemis paves the way to live and work in a hostile environment in space, to invent, to create, and eventually to go to Mars with humans."
Since the capsule's launch on Nov. 15 atop NASA's giant Space Launch System rocket, cameras mounted on the wings of Orion's solar array have captured images of the Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself. Today, the orbital alignment was spot-on to capture images of the Moon passing in front of the Earth's disc - meaning communications links with Earth were momentarily cut during the eclipse.
Although Orion's view of the Moon-over-Earth occultation was remarkable, there are precedents: for example, the Apollo astronauts saw multiple Earthrises and Earthsets -- and so did Orion's cameras during an earlier phase of Artemis 1's journey. For what it's worth, a satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory has captured views of the Moon passing in front of Earth for a partial "eclipse."
And the hits keep coming: Over the coming week, Orion is scheduled to conduct a series of maneuvers that will include a second close approach to the lunar surface -- the mission's first opportunity to take close-up photos of Apollo landing sites. These maneuvers prepare the Orion for her voyage home.
Mission managers said the flight went largely according to plan, with only a few "funnies" cleared up by the NASA team. For example, engineers determined that a series of resets in Orion's star tracking system were not unusual in Orion's operating environment.
"We are continuing the nominal mission," said Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1's mission director.
Some of the most important tests will not take place until Orion descends into a Pacific splashdown on December 11th.
"The biggest post-launch test is reentry, because we want to know that the heat shield works at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, almost half as hot as the sun, and coming in at Mach 32 ... 25,000 miles per hour," Nelson said.
If the reentry and splashdown sequence is successful, NASA engineers will review the capsule's condition and collect sensor data from three mannequins placed in Orion's seats. All of these readings will help the Artemis team schedule the upcoming manned missions.
Artemis 2, tentatively scheduled for 2024, will send astronauts on a 10.5-day mission around the moon. If this shakedown cruise goes well and a Starship lunar lander currently in development at SpaceX is operational in time, NASA would proceed with Artemis 3 in the 2025 time frame.
"We will have four [astronauts] sent into a polar elliptical lunar orbit, which will then bring two of the astronauts to the surface in the lander," Nelson said.
Crews for future Artemis missions have not yet been announced, but Nelson said Artemis 3 will bring the "first woman and next man" to the lunar surface. He has also promised that the landing party will include the first person of color to set foot on the moon.
More from GeekWire:
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NASA's Orion Capsule orbits the moon and captures views that will make you dizzy
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