After a flyby of the moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is scheduled to lift off on Sunday

Zoom in / Orion, Moon, and Earth’s crescent on Monday.

NASA

The Orion spacecraft swung by the Moon on Monday, flying within 130 kilometers of that world’s surface as it set course to return to Earth this weekend.

In this “flight-energy burn” to get away from the moon, the Orion service module performed the longest main engine launch yet, lasting 3 minutes and 27 seconds. After successfully completing the maneuver, he gave NASA’s mission management team a “go” to send recovery teams to the Pacific Ocean, where Orion is scheduled to lift off on Sunday, around midday.

By entering orbit around the Moon, and returning from it again during the deep space mission, Orion has now completed four main thrust burns. This completes a major test of the spacecraft and its propulsion service module, which are being built by the European Space Agency. Although a modular version of Orion made flight in 2014, it did so without a service module.

As part of this Artemis I mission, NASA is now three weeks into a 25.5-day test flight of the Orion spacecraft. The goal is to validate the spacecraft’s capabilities before a human flight of the vehicle in about two years, the Artemis II mission.

Orion has achieved most of its major goals so far, with only a portion of its mission entering, descending, and warming up. The spacecraft’s heat shield must show its ability to survive re-entry at 39,400 km/h. That big test will come Sunday during a fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Simple energy issue

So far, the Orion test flight has gone well. Usually, with new spacecraft, there are issues with the propulsion engines, navigation, onboard avionics, and more. However, Orion did not have major problems. The only real troubleshooting involved a problem with the power systems on the vehicle.

The problem occurred with four “closed current limiters” that help direct power to Orion’s propulsion and heating systems. For some reason, Orion’s robotic controllers have instructed the current four selectors to “open” when no such command is supposed to be sent. “We’re not entirely sure what the root cause of the problem is, but teams are conducting tests on the ground,” Debbie Kurth, deputy director of the Orion program, said during a briefing Monday night at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Overall, the Orion spacecraft performed like a champ.
Zoom in / Overall, the Orion spacecraft performed like a champ.

NASA

This system is a bit like a circuit breaker box in a house, and for some reason four of the breakers opened when they weren’t supposed to. This did not pose a threat to Orion, as there are backup power systems. If there had been a crew on board, it would have required a simple procedure to explain the problem.

In an interview after the news briefing, Kurth said she did not believe the defect would have an impact on the service module that will be used for the Artemis II mission. This device has already been manufactured and tested in the United States.

“I think it’s too early to say for sure, but ideally we wouldn’t want to jam the Artemis II service module,” she said. “This could very well be something we can deal with with software.”

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