NASA's Orion with Earth in background
NASA’s Orion spacecraft snapped this selfie with Earth in the background prior to firing its engines to enter a looping orbit around the moon.

Traveling 57,000 miles beyond the moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft fired its engine Friday to enter a special elongated orbit around Earth’s neighbor.

Flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston reported that the orbital maneuvering system engine ignited for 1 minute and 28 seconds at 2:52 p.m. Pacific time.

The spacecraft is now in what scientists call a “distant retrograde orbit” during which NASA will monitor key systems and perform checkouts while in the environment of deep space.  

It’s retrograde because the spacecraft will orbit opposite the direction that the moon circles the Earth.

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 Orion 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.

Artemis 1 is a test mission 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.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.