The Orion spacecraft of NASA is on its way home.
This week, the human-rated Artemis I spacecraft completed its final pass by the moon on its journey back toward Earth before splashing down on December 11 in the Pacific Ocean.
As it made flyby, NASA released the most amazing photographs from the mission thus far, showcasing the moon’s surface in all its grandeur via high-definition images shot by a substantially modified GoPro Hero 4.
Orion’s hi-definition moon imagery
Orion captured a series of images of the moon on its first flyby before inserting into distant retrograde orbit, where it set the distance record for a human-classified spacecraft. For the most part, these images were quite grainy and didn’t deliver the HD glory that many expected.
That’s because the photographs were most likely obtained using Orion’s Optical Navigation Camera, which is positioned on the spacecraft’s front. Orion has 16 cameras in all, with a modified GoPro Hero 4 attached on each of its 4 wing-like solar arrays.
Now though, the moment many have been waiting for has finally arrived, as NASA’s newest photographs reveal stunning detail, including a close-up glimpse of the moon’s far side.
On November 16, NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) for the Artemis I mission. Since then, it has travelled to the moon and beyond, shattering the record previously held by Apollo 13 for the furthest distance travelled by a spacecraft made for humans.
What next for the Artemis program?
The Artemis I mission begins off NASA’s Artemis programme, which ultimately seeks to place humans back on the moon’s surface and create a permanent human presence on the moon that will serve as a stepping stone for crewed missions to Mars and beyond.
Artemis I is a test mission that will allow NASA to collect vast amounts of valuable data ahead of its next manned Artemis missions. At a press conference in November, Orion’s Vehicle Integration Manager, Jim Geffre, said that Orion is performing very well in space, stating that “all systems are exceeding expectations in terms of performance stand-point.”
The spacecraft completed a three-and-a-half-minute engine fire three days ago, allowing it to use the moon’s gravity to help slingshot it back toward Earth for a splashdown over the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, December 11.
If all goes according to plan with Artemis I, NASA’s Artemis II mission is slated to go ahead in 2024. This mission will take astronauts on a similar trajectory around the moon and back. Meanwhile, Artemis III will finally land humans on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972, including the first woman and first black person to fly to the moon. Both Artemis II & Artemis III are launched with the help of NASA SLS rocket, although Artemis III will use a modified SpaceX Starship rocket under development as a lunar lander.