Historic: NASA's Orion spacecraft enters lunar orbit

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After numerous delays, last Wednesday, November 16 at 6:47:44 UTC time, the Space Launch System rocket ignited its engines and flooded the sky of Cape Canaveral, Florida with light like no other rocket had ever done before. The Artemis I mission will serve as a technological demonstration of the capabilities of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule to fly a crew to the Moon in about two years.

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Artemis I

This mission is part of the program led by NASA Artemis, which seeks to return people to the Moon. For this purpose, there is an international collaboration of many companies and space agencies that offer technology and/or components to explore the Moon.

The way to the Moon

After successfully entering a 30 x 1080 kilometers orbit the first stage was jettisoned and would re-enter the atmosphere shortly thereafter, later the ICPS second stage would adjust the orbit to raise the perigee to 180 kilometers. In the meantime all the separation and de-orbiting processes went smoothly and Orion deployed its solar arrays.

Hours later, the ICPS restarted its engines to inject Orion into a trajectory that would lead it to intercept the Moon days later. In addition, eleven secondary missions had been flown, although about half of them showed anomalies, either because of little data sent or a total absence of communication.

Orion has also found minor anomalies that do not pose a risk, but allow a better understanding of the capsule for future missions with people on board. However, one of the biggest problems is related to a navigation instrument that uses the stars to know its orientation in space, which is obscured by debris from the control engines, preventing it from functioning properly.

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Entry into orbit

After a little more than 5 days of cruise phase, the Orion spacecraft passed behind the Moon and lost direct communication with Earth as planned. The loss of signal lasted 34 minutes while remerging from the Moon. During this time, two critical mission objectives were completed. The maneuvering system engine burned for almost 3 minutes, leaving the capsule in a highly unstable elliptical orbit that will allow it, in 4 days, to reach its final target.

Although Orion is a mission destined for the Moon, it will not be gravitationally bound directly to it, but is intended to enter a distant retrograde quasi-linear orbit. This is a special type of orbit characterized by a spin direction opposite to that of the Moon. This is the place where it will break the distance record for a capsule designed to be manned.

The service module, donated by the European Space Agency, has a maneuvering and propulsion system, being the main engine reused from Space Shuttle missions. It has flown 19 times, the first time aboard STS 41G and the last time on STS-112.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza