As it travels to the Moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is returning images of Earth that are reminiscent of the “blue marble” photos taken by Apollo astronauts fifty years earlier.
As part of the camera system for the unmanned Artemis 1 mission, the photographer is essentially a robot this time.
With the inaugural NASA Space Launch System launch earlier today, the round-the-Moon voyage got off to a stunning start. Over the next 25 days, it’s expected to pave the way for crewed missions to the lunar surface in the future.
Several hours after launch, a camera attached to one of Orion’s four solar arrays rotated to take a picture of the spacecraft’s European-built service module in the foreground against the dark background of space.
As the images descended, NASA’s Sandra Jones pronounced, “Orion looks back at Earth as it moves toward the Moon, 57,000 miles away from the land we call home.”
The 16 cameras on Orion are primarily used to track the operation of the capsule’s internal and external systems from launch to splashdown.
As Orion passes quickly past, the four solar array cameras can also capture images of Earth and the Moon.
David Melendrez, picture integration lead for the Orion Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, stated in an online introduction on the camera system that “many people have an impression of Earthrise based on the classic Apollo 8 shot.”
The images that are taken during the journey will be different from what people saw during the Apollo missions, but recording historic occasions like Earthrise, Orion’s closest approach to Earth, and the lunar flyby will be a top focus.
Not only did Orion and the Artemis 1 team take selfies with Earth during the first 24 hours of the mission, but 10 tiny satellites were also launched from the Space Launch System’s upper stage after trans-lunar injection.
Lunar IceCube, one of the CubeSats, will scan the Moon for evidence of water ice. To assess the thermal climate of the Moon, a different spacecraft called LunIR will take pictures of the lunar surface.
While NASA’s NEA Scout is designed to unfold a solar sail and fly away to examine a near-Earth asteroid, Japan’s Omotenashi spacecraft will attempt to make a “semi-hard” but survivable lunar landing.
The Artemis 1 team will be keeping an eye on Orion’s performance in the following weeks as a test run for a crewed round-the-Moon mission planned for 2024 and a crewed lunar landing provisionally anticipated for 2025.
To gather information regarding radiation exposure and other features of the space environment, three mannequins are seated in Orion’s seats and are wired with sensors.
On November 21, when Orion is scheduled to fly past the Moon at a height of roughly 60 miles, the mission will reach its next significant milestone.
The spaceship will start its main engine and use the gravitational pull of the Moon to manoeuvre into a looping orbit that can extend out up to 40,000 miles.
When Orion returns to Earth and reaches the atmosphere at a speed of 24,500 mph, that will be when it will be put to the ultimate test.
The heat shield was designed to withstand temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but Orion’s fall to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11 will be its first actual test.
The multibillion-dollar project, Artemis 1, has undergone years of development and has received some criticism. The cost of this expedition alone is estimated to be about $4 billion USD.
But following today’s successful launch, the White House was all praise: