NASA’s Artemis 1 Orion capsule is exceeding expectations in deep space and remains on track to fly close to the moon Monday, Nov. 21, agency officials said.
The Artemis 1 mission launched Wednesday morning (November 16), sending an uncrewed Orion to the moon atop a massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. This is Orion’s first-ever trip beyond Earth orbit, but the capsule ticked boxes like a veteran, mission team members said.
“Orion has done very well so far,” said Jim Geffre, Orion vehicle integration manager at NASA, during a Friday afternoon (November 18) press briefing. “All systems exceed expectations from a performance standpoint.”
Related: A breathtaking view of the debut of NASA’s Artemis 1 moon rocket (photos)
Live updates: NASA Artemis 1 lunar mission
Orion will reach the moon on Monday, November 21, traveling just 130 kilometers above the dusty gray surface at 7:44 a.m. EST (12:44 p.m. GMT). The mission plan calls for the capsule to perform a crucial 2.5-minute engine burn during this close approach, a maneuver that will set the stage for insertion into lunar orbit four days later.
The Artemis 1 team members will decide whether or not to engage in this “powered hover burn” following a meeting on Saturday, November 19. It would be surprising at this point, however, if they ended up changing the plan.
“Right now we’re looking good and we’re ready to continue the execution,” Artemis 1 Flight Director Jeff Radigan said during Friday’s briefing.
This does not mean that the flight went perfectly. Thirteen anomalies, or “funnies,” have been detected so far during Orion’s cruise, mission team members said Friday.
One such problem was a set of erratic readings from Orion’s star trackers, which the capsule uses to navigate. This initially puzzled the team, but they eventually determined that the trackers were dazzled by the glow of Orion’s thrusters during the burns. Once the cause was identified, the team was able to fix the issue, as they have the other 12 funny ones, all of which were minor issues.
Problems may be more severe for some of the 10 cubesats launched on Artemis 1 as carpool payloads. While all were deployed from the SLS upper stage as planned, only five are now performing as expected, Artemis 1 mission manager Mike Sarafin said during the briefing.
ArgoMoon, BioSentinel, Equuleus, LunaH-Map, and OMOTENASHI “are on the path to success,” Sarafin said.
The other five – which are LunIR, Lunar IceCube, NEA Scout, CuSP and Team Miles – “experienced technical issues after deployment or had intermittent communications or, in one case, failed to acquire a signal with the medium. of communication that they had planned,” he added.
Sarafin, however, pointed out that he and the other members of the Artemis 1 team do not have the best or most up-to-date information on cubesats, which are independent spacecraft operated by a variety of different groups. OMOTENASHI, for example, is a tiny Japanese probe that aims to drop a 2.2-pound (1-kilogram) lander onto the lunar surface.
Sarafin also revealed that the mobile launch tower of Artemis 1 was somewhat damaged by the SLS, the most powerful rocket ever successfully launched.
For example, pressure waves generated by the SLS’s 8.8 million pound thrust blew through the tower’s elevator blast doors during Wednesday’s liftoff, which was the first-ever for the giant rocket. (Orion had one flight under its belt before Artemis 1, a 2014 Earth-orbit test flight atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.)
It’s not exactly a surprise; the team expected the SLS to give the tower a bit of a hard time, Sarafin said. Technicians have not yet been able to fully assess the condition of the launch tower, but they are working on it.
“The team is proceeding cautiously to get full system status for the Mobile Launcher, and they’re working on it,” Sarafin said.
If all goes as planned with Monday’s flyby, Orion will then prepare for another crucial engine burn on November 25. This will insert the capsule into a far lunar retrograde orbit, which will take Orion up to 40,000 miles (64,000 km) from the moon’s surface.
The capsule will remain in this orbit until December 1, when it will perform another burn to set it on course for Earth. Orion will dive gently under parachutes on December 11 in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast, if all goes as planned.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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