The Orion capsule has made its closest pass above the surface of the moon and begun its journey back to Earth, capturing astonishing views of our planet on the way
5 December 2022
NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which launched atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on 16 November, is heading home. The capsule completed its closest pass by the moon on 5 December, hurtling around the moon’s far side and lighting up its thrusters to begin the journey back to Earth.
The close pass took the capsule just 127 kilometres above the surface of the far side of the moon – the side we never see from Earth due to the length of the moon’s orbit being tightly locked with the timing of its rotation. As Orion passed back into view of Earth, it took images of the crescent planet rising above the moon’s cratered surface.
If all goes well, Orion will return to Earth on 11 December, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. This will be one of the most challenging parts of the mission – Orion’s heat shield will be subjected to temperatures of almost 2800°C as it plunges into Earth’s atmosphere. Making sure the heat shield holds up during that infernal descent is one of the key goals of this test flight.
If Orion proves safe, the next step will be the Artemis II mission, planned for 2024, in which a capsule will carry astronauts around the moon and back home. Then, in 2025, a capsule is scheduled to take astronauts back to the surface of the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. NASA officials hope that this mission, called Artemis III, will mark the beginning of a sustained human presence on the lunar surface.
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