NASA's Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft leaves moon's orbit to head home

NASA's Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft is coming home.

The uncrewed Orion spacecraft successfully completed a lunar departure burn on Thursday (Dec. 1) to begin heading home after successful moon orbits. The burn began at 4:54 p.m. EST (2154 GMT) and lasted just under two minutes, according to NASA Television commentator Shaneequa Vereen. 

"Orion has had a successful and nominal, 1 minute and 45 second, distant retrograde orbit departure burn," Vereen announced during the agency's broadcast of the burn. The spacecraft's solar panels could be seen gently rocking back and forth on NASA Television's live broadcast as a "tiny Earth" glowed in the background.

Orion now begins its ten-day trek home. If all goes according to plan, the capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on Dec. 11. NASA and the United States Navy have already begun training for the recovery operation that will mark the end of the Artemis 1 mission.

Related: Artemis 1 moon rocket, NASA's most powerful ever, aced its debut launch, agency says

Live updates: NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission

NASA's Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft during its distant retrograde orbit departure burn. Earth can be seen in the background. (Image credit: NASA)
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Orion launched atop NASA's massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in a fiery display on Nov. 16, kicking off the space agency's highly-anticipated Artemis 1 moon mission.

The mission is the first in the agency's Artemis program, which is aimed at establishing a sustainable crewed lunar outpost near the moon's south pole by the end of the decade.

The first Artemis mission was intended as a test for both the SLS vehicle and Orion spacecraft to ensure that both are flightworthy and safe to carry human crews into deep space. If Artemis 1 goes as planned, the next mission, Artemis 2, will launch astronauts into orbit around the moon in 2024. NASA will then return astronauts to the moon no earlier than 2025 with Artemis 3

So far, Artemis 1 has met its benchmarks, according to NASA. Mission managers announced on Wednesday (Nov. 30) that the Nov. 16 launch of SLS showed the vehicle performed exactly as intended.

"The first launch of the Space Launch System rocket was simply eye-watering," Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said. "While our mission with Orion is still underway and we continue to learn over the course of our flight, the rocket's systems performed as designed and as expected in every case," he added.

In photos: Amazing views of NASA's Artemis 1 moon rocket debut

Orion, meanwhile, has been likewise performing wonderfully by all indications. A major milestone, the spacecraft's insertion into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, was achieved on Nov. 25

With today's burn, Orion now has a long and lonely journey home, and will no doubt be sending home gorgeous images and footage as it has throughout its flight so far. 

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children. 

  • MistahPotatoHead
    "Orion now begins its ten-day trek home"

    So, it takes TEN DAYS to get a crewless spaceship from the moon to the Earth. But we're supposed to believe that over FIFTY years ago we sent a MANNED spaceship to the moon, stopped to gather some rocks and sand, and came all the way back in EIGHT DAYS.
    Reply
  • Ed Marineves
    MistahPotatoHead said:
    "Orion now begins its ten-day trek home"

    So, it takes TEN DAYS to get a crewless spaceship from the moon to the Earth. But we're supposed to believe that over FIFTY years ago we sent a MANNED spaceship to the moon, stopped to gather some rocks and sand, and came all the way back in EIGHT DAYS.
    I too noted it's a long travel time for a crew, and due to air, food supplies they probably will use a different trajectory when manned.

    But this reply expresses some misinderstandings that are worth dispelling. No, they didn't build a spacecraft that only has a gas pedal that goes down halfway, it can fly faster as desired based on how much fuel they choose to expend, and with an empty crew capsule there's no hurry to get there. And 50 years of improvement are baked into it in so many ways. It's like comparing a 1969 Camaro to a Tesla Model S. The Camaro could go fast, had a primitive engine with poor fuel efficiency and smog output, whereas the Model S is faster when needed, more refined and offers a myriad of tech upgrades. A far far better ride.

    They haven't been sitting on their thumbs for fifty years. It's great to see the hardware finally flying.
    Reply
  • billslugg
    In taking so long to return to Earth perhaps they are trying to practice a "minimum fuel" scenario.
    Reply
  • DrRaviSharma
    billslug you are most likely right.

    Having worked on Apollo Missions 8-17 including Experiments and Observations as well as Shuttle and Station Planning my opinion is two fold.

    1. After 50+ years we are shorter than Apollo 8 in goals as it is human capable robotic mission only,
    we do not know about real consumables such as oxygen and water use onboard.

    Also why was South pole not part of mission? This could have supplemented hopefully planned orbiters and landers before astronauts go in Artemis 2 and 3.

    2. The positive side is that at 10 times the cost per mission, and half century gap, at least these designs aim for long term survivability. We expect more robotic assistance in A2 and A3 missions and yet we are not seeing together the whole picture in 2025-30 time period.

    Even though as we have discussed robotic missions being low cost low risk and are quicker, there is rich history from Gagarin and Glen to Apollo astronauts and ISS astronauts and hope humanity stays in near earth space at leas to Moon and hopefully Mars.

    Can we expect Congress to be farsighted beyond 10+ years in funding such programs?
    We have also missed Fusion, and Fuel CELL OPPORTUNITIES IN THE US FOR PAST 50 YEARS!
    Thanks.
    Ravi
    (Dr. Ravi Sharma, Ph.D. USA)
    NASA Apollo Achievement Award
    Chair, Ontology Summit 2022
    Senior Enterprise Architect
    Particle and Space Physicist
    Reply