CAPE CANAVERAL (US),
NASA’s Orion capsule reached the Moon on Monday, whipping around the back side and passing within 80 miles (128 km) on its way to a record-breaking lunar orbit.
The close approach occurred as the crew capsule and its three test dummies were on the far side of the Moon. Because of the half-hour communication blackout, flight controllers in Houston did not know if the critical engine firing went well until the capsule emerged from behind the Moon, more than 232,000 miles (375,000 km) from Earth. It’s the first time a capsule has visited the Moon since NASA’s Apollo programme 50 years ago, and represented a huge milestone in the $4.1 billion test flight that began last Wednesday. Orion’s flight path took it over the landing sites of Apollo 11, 12 and 14 — humanity’s first three lunar touchdowns.
The Moon loomed ever larger in the video beamed back earlier in the morning, as the capsule closed the final few thousand miles since blasting off last Wednesday from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, atop the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA.
“This is one of those days that you’ve been thinking about and talking about for a long, long time,” flight director Zeb Scoville said while awaiting to resume contact. As the capsule swung out from behind the Moon, onboard cameras sent back a picture of Earth — a blue dot surrounded by blackness
Orion needed to slingshot around the Moon to pick up enough speed to enter the sweeping, lopsided lunar orbit. If all continues to go well, another engine firing will place the capsule in that orbit Friday.