The US space agency NASA’s Orion capsule landed on the moon on Monday, whipping around the far side and circling the moon on its way to a record-breaking orbit with test dummies housing astronauts.
It is the first time a capsule has traveled to the moon since NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago, and represents a major step in the $4.1bn test flight that began last Wednesday.
Russia and China also have ambitions for the moon, and in 2021 they announced an agreement to build a lunar research station. This seems to have stopped after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Russia was not invited or mentioned in the discussions about China’s plans at the International Astronautical Congress in September.
China has put a lunar probe on the moon, and earlier this month it added the final stage to its Tiangong space station.
Orion is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put the first woman and first human on the moon in the next few years. Orion sat atop the agency’s most powerful Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, as it blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the US early Wednesday morning, to orbit the moon.
On Saturday, Orion sent back its first images of the moon.
The closest approach of 130km (81 miles) was made on Monday when the crew capsule and its three wired dummies were on the far side of the moon. Because of the half-hour delay, flight controllers in Houston, Texas did not know whether the engine firing was successful until the capsule emerged from behind the moon, 370,000km (230,000 miles) from Earth.
The capsule’s cameras also sent back a picture of Earth – a small blue halo surrounded by darkness.
“Our blue-gray system and eight billion people are now visible,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule was traveling at over 8,000km/h (5,000mph) when it resumed radio contact, NASA said. In less than an hour, Orion rose above Tranquility Base, where US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on July 20, 1969 – becoming the first men on the moon.
“This is one of those days you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long time,” Flight Commander Zeb Scoville said.
Early in the morning, the moon appeared larger in this video, as the capsule closed several thousand miles from where it blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Orion needed to orbit the moon to gain enough speed to enter the large, steep lunar orbit. Air traffic controllers checked the leak to determine if the engine firing went as planned. Another shot will put the capsule into orbit on Friday.
At the end of next week, Orion will break NASA’s record for a spacecraft designed for astronauts – about 400,000 kilometers (250,000 miles) from Earth, set by Apollo 13 in 1970. 433,000km (270,000 miles).
The capsule spends about a week in lunar orbit, before heading home. The Pacific eruption is scheduled for December 11.
Orion has no moon; touchdown won’t come until NASA astronauts attempt a lunar landing in 2025 with SpaceX’s Starship. Before that, astronauts will build Orion to orbit the moon starting in 2024.
NASA officials say they are happy with how the project is progressing. The Space Launch System rocket performed very well on launch, he told reporters late last week.
The 98-meter (322-foot) rocket did more damage than expected, however, at the Kennedy Space Center during launch. The force from the 4 million kilograms (8.8 million pounds) was so great that it tore open the elevator’s explosive doors.
The previous four days were canceled or delayed by engine problems, high winds and tropical storms.