NASA’s Orion spacecraft has fired its main engine to leave a distant lunar orbit and return to Earth, where it will splash down off San Diego on Dec. 11.
The spacecraft was traveling traveling nearly 240,000 miles from Earth and over 50,000 miles from the Moon in what scientists term a “distant retrograde orbit” on Thursday when the maneuver occurred.
Orion’s orbital maneuvering system engine built by Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento ignited just before 2 p.m. Pacific time and burned for 1 minute and 45 seconds to set the spacecraft on a course that will sling it within 80 miles of the moon’s surface and then on to Earth.
The capsule will return to Earth on Dec. 11, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego where it will be recovered by a Navy amphibious ship.
The spacecraft, which blasted off Nov. 16 on NASA’s Space Launch System — the most powerful rocket ever flown — is designed to carry four astronauts on missions of up to 21 days to the moon and beyond.
The Artemis I mission is a test of the entire system prior to sending astronauts around the moon in early 2024. It will be followed by a moon landing in the middle of the decade.
“Artemis I will be the first in a series of increasingly complex missions to build a long-term human presence at the Moon for decades to come,” according to NASA.