This NASA image shows Earth from the far side of the Moon. It was taken on November 21, 2022 by a camera on the tip of one of the solar arrays on the Orion spacecraft. Early Monday morning the spacecraft executed the Outbound Powered Flyby maneuver which brought it within 80 miles (130 km) of the lunar surface, the closest approach of the outbound portion of the uncrewed Artemis I mission.

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This close encounter will cause the spacecraft to loop around and away from the Moon. The new flight path will take Orion about 57,287 miles at its farthest point beyond the Moon on Nov. 25. Then another engine burn will place the spacecraft in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon.

The orbit is referred to as distant because when the spacecraft enters the orbit it will be about 40,000 miles (70,000 km) from the moon. It is called retrograde because Orion’s orbit will follow a path opposite the direction in which the Moon travels. Apollo Moon missions orbited the Moon in the direction in which the Moon travels.

It will take about six days of travel before that distant retrograde orbit brings it to a second close Moon flyby. Then another burn of the European service module engine – in combination with the moon’s gravity – will accelerate Orion on a trajectory back to Earth.

On December 11, the spacecraft should enter Earth’s atmosphere at about Mach 32 (nearly 25,000 mph or 11 kmps). That is significantly faster than any previous vehicle designed for human occupancy and will utilize a new skip-entry technique. The capsule will hit the upper atmosphere, skip once, and then make a full entry. It sounds harder but should lead to more precision and lower g forces. Splashdown is targeted for the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, CA.

After several launch delays, the mission has gone extremely well for an initial test flight. Let’s hope that successful record continues.