NASA’s Orion capsule reaches the moon, passes over Apollo 11 landing site

Cape Canaveral: NASA’s Orion capsule reached the moon on Monday, passing within 128 kilometres of the lunar surface on its historic space flight.

The close approach occurred as the crew capsule and its three test dummies were on the far side of the moon. Because of the half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, more than 375,000 kilometres from Earth.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft approaches the moon.Credit:NASA via AP

It’s the first time a capsule has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and represented a huge milestone in the $US4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday. Orion’s flight path took it over the landing sites of Apollo 11, 12 and 14 — humanity’s first three lunar touchdowns.

The moon loomed ever larger in the video beamed back to Earth as the capsule closed the final few thousand kilometres since blasting off on November 16 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre.

“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said.

As the capsule swung out from behind the moon, onboard cameras sent back a picture of Earth – a blue dot surrounded by blackness.

Earth, pictured from the Orion spacecraft.Credit:NASA via AP

Orion needed to slingshot around the moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. If all continues to go well, another engine firing will place the capsule in that orbit Friday.

Next weekend, Orion will shatter NASA’s distance record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts – nearly 400,000 kilometres from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. And it will keep going, reaching a maximum distance from Earth next Monday at nearly 433,000 kilometres.

The capsule will spend close to a week in lunar orbit, before heading home. A Pacific splashdown is planned for December. 11.

Orion has no lunar lander; a touchdown won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before then, astronauts will strap into Orion for a ride around the moon as early as 2024.

NASA managers were delighted with the progress of the mission. The Space Launch System rocket performed exceedingly well in its debut, they told reporters late last week.

The 98-metre rocket caused more damage than expected, however, at the Kennedy Space Centre launch pad. The force from the 4 million kilograms of liftoff thrust was so great that it tore off the blast doors of the elevator.


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