Artemis 1 Orion craft has left moon orbit, now headed home

Artemis 1: Sunlit side of spacecraft with solar panel, and small gray moon in distance.
So long, moon! Shortly before the Orion spacecraft prepared to exit lunar orbit – a major milestone in the Artemis 1 mission – a camera mounted on one of the craft’s solar arrays captured this image. Image via NASA’s Artemis blog.

Artemis 1 has left lunar orbit

The valiant, uncrewed Orion moonship – which traveled farther from Earth on November 28, 2022, than any previous craft built for humans – left lunar orbit on Thursday, December 1, 2022, and is now headed home.

The departure burn began at 21:54 UTC (4:54 p.m. ET) and lasted just under two minutes. NASA Television commentator Shaneequa Vereen called the burn nominal – which is the word space fans wait to hear – meaning “all systems as expected.”

The burn propelled the Orion capsule out of lunar orbit and sent it hurtling back to Earth, where it’s due to splash down in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego on December 11.

Next time they do this, there will be humans aboard!

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Sunlit front end of space capsule labeled NASA, with tiny Earth and moon in background.
On November 28, 2022, the uncrewed Orion spacecraft reached its maximum distance from the Earth and moon. At that point, Orion had traveled farther than any other spacecraft built for humans, and farther than any Apollo mission – when humans last visited the moon – 50 years ago. See the moon and Earth in the upper right? Image via NASA.

Artemis 1 mission farthest from Earth November 28

Orion reached its farthest distance from Earth just after 3 p.m. CST (21 UTC) on Monday, November 28, 2022. It set a new record for the greatest distance from Earth – for any craft built for human space travel – of 268,563 miles (432,210 km). The Orion craft launched from Earth in the Artemis 1 test mission on November 16, 2022. The farthest point from Earth came on flight day 13 for the mission. The spacecraft captured poignant imagery of Earth and the moon together throughout the day on Monday, including shots of the moon appearing to eclipse Earth.

The spacecraft remains in healthy condition, NASA said at its Artemis blog. The craft entered lunar orbit – a distant retrograde orbit – last Friday, November 25. It is now well past the halfway point of its 25.5-day mission. An ebullient NASA Administrator Bill Nelson commented:

Because of the unbelievable can-do spirit, Artemis I has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events. It’s incredible just how smoothly this mission has gone. But this is a test. That’s what we do, we test it and we stress it.

This Orion capsule is uncrewed for the Artemis 1 test mission. Artemis 2 will carry a human crew into lunar orbit. And Artemis 3 will place humans on the moon for the first time in half a century.

Map showing Artemis 1's path around the moon and what it will be doing at different points along its journey.
View larger. | A closer look at the major points in Artemis 1‘s path around the moon and back. Image via NASA.

Closest to the moon on November 21

While crossing the moon’s back side and out of communication with Earth, the Orion capsule swept within 80 miles (~130 km) of the moon’s surface at 7:44 a.m. ET (12:44 UTC) on November 21, 2022. The uncrewed Orion craft successfully completed a “burn” that let it use the moon’s gravity to boost it, first once around the moon, and ultimately into a distant retrograde orbit.

Orion is spending six days orbiting the moon before returning to Earth. The November 21 pass near the moon was its closest approach. At its farthest, Orion was 40,000 miles (64,000 km) beyond the moon. That’s farther than any Apollo mission by 30,000 miles (48,000 km).

NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is our first step in a human return to the moon. And Monday’s sweep past the moon was the first time a space capsule designed for humans has visited the moon since NASA’s Apollo missions 50 years ago.

Check NASA’s Artemis blog for updates.

What’s ahead for Artemis 1

The spacecraft will come quite close to the moon again on December 5, 2022. At its second close approach, it will get the gravity assist that sends it home.

At its homecoming, the Orion capsule will endure speeds of 25,000 mph (40,000 kph) as it enters Earth’s atmosphere. A system of parachutes will slow the capsule’s descent to 20 mph (32 kph) prior to splashdown.

Artemis 1 launch a big success

After many delays, the SLS lifted off from Launch Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1:47 a.m. EST on November 16, 2022. It blasted out some 8.8 million pounds of thrust, making it the most powerful rocket ever to launch from Earth. The rocket lit up the dark night in the early morning hours, a bright beacon in the dark. Now the Orion spacecraft is spending 25 days in space. It’ll orbit the moon before returning to Earth.

NASA describes the Artemis 1 mission as:

… setting the stage for human exploration into deep space.

One note. The fiery and powerful launch did do some damage to the launch site.

Longer, faster, hotter

The Artemis 1 mission will cover a total of 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km). It will get as far away from Earth as 280,000 miles (450,000 km). That’s in contrast to the moon’s farthest distance from Earth of 252,088 miles (405,700 km). NASA explained:

Orion will stay in space longer than any human spacecraft has without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before.

Follow the Artemis mission on Twitter

Artemis 1: Diagram: The sections of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft spread out, with labels.
View larger. | Components of the Space Launch System (SLS rocket) and Orion crew vehicle. Image via NASA.

Bottom line: The uncrewed Orion moonship – which traveled farther from Earth on November 28, 2022, than any previous craft built for humans – departed lunar orbit today, Thursday, December 1, 2022, and is now headed back toward Earth. Splashdown in the Pacific, off the coast of San Diego, is due December 11.

December 1, 2022

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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