Orion should top that Saturday at 7:42 a.m. Eastern Time. The spacecraft is expected to reach its maximum distance of more than 270,000 miles from Earth at 4:13 p.m. Eastern Time Monday, NASA said.
The distant orbit, which requires little fuel to maintain, allows Orion to test its systems to see how the vehicle performs. However, the orbit is so large that the craft will only complete about half an orbit in six days before beginning its return flight to Earth.
The flight, without astronauts on board, is the first step in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Using cameras mounted on the outside of the spacecraft, Orion has sent back dramatic images and live video of its journey. including spectacular images of Earth as seen in the distance, more than 200,000 miles away, in the vast, inky darkness of space.
If the current mission, known as Artemis I, goes well, NASA is planning a second flight, this time with astronauts on board, as early as 2024. That mission, known as Artemis II, would also orbit the moon, with a landing with people to come after.
“The mission is proceeding as we planned, and the ground systems, our operations teams, and the Orion spacecraft continue to exceed expectations,” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis I mission manager, said this week. “And we continue to learn about this new deep spacecraft along the way.”
He said the Space Launch System rocket, even more powerful than the Apollo-era Saturn V, performed so well that the results were “eye-watering.” However, its massive thrust caused some damage to the mobile launch tower, including blowing the doors off the tower’s elevator. But overall, the structure itself held up well, Sarafin said.
After Orion completes a half orbit around the moon, it will hurl itself home around the moon.
One of the most important tests will come as the spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, traveling at about 25,000 mph. The friction with the thickening air will produce temperatures as high as 5000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The spacecraft is expected to crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on December 11.
While there are no actual astronauts aboard the Artemis I mission, there is a mannequin named Moonikin Campos riding in the Orion spacecraft commander’s seat. It is equipped with a suit and sensors to provide feedback on what the ride will be like for future astronauts.
The seat has two sensors to register acceleration and vibration. The spacesuit has sensors to register radiation levels.
The name “Moonikin” was chosen through a public contest. Campos was chosen in honor of Arturo Campos, a former NASA engineer who played a key role in the recovery of the Apollo 13 spacecraft after the mission failed.
Two mannequin torsos also ride along. Named Zohar and Helga, they are made of materials that, according to NASA, “imitate human bones, soft tissues, and organs of an adult woman.” (It is believed that women are more sensitive to radiation exposure than men.)
They also have sensors to measure radiation. Zohar has a radiation vest, but Helga does not.