Four small pieces of the Moon aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft have come closer to the Moon’s surface than they have in more than 50 years since they were collected.
Lunar samples return home (will open in a new tab) — or at least their rapid flight around the world they came from — was part of a larger journey to prepare people to do the same. Four dust particles, which were first brought to Earth by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, approached the moon on Monday (November 21) within 80 miles (130 kilometers) as part of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission.
While the inclusion of lunar material in the Orion capsule linked the Apollo and Artemis missions (will open in a new tab)a close flyby of a natural satellite of the Earth serves the more important purpose of using the gravitational force of the moon to guide the spacecraft towards its exit into a far lunar retrograde orbit.
The successful maneuver marked only the second time a lunar specimen has visited the Moon again. Previously, the rock, discovered by the Apollo 12 astronauts, was flown on Apollo 16 as part of a study of the Moon’s magnetic field in 1972.
Seconds in space
The four lunar samples of Apollo 11 flying on Artemis I are embedded in what NASA calls a “button,” a small lucite bubble.
“For Apollo 11, we had examples of goodwill. (will open in a new tab). These were separate, more than 2 mm [0.08-inch] fragments separated from the largest soil collected on Apollo 11, and they were donated to every country and every state. We’ve done more than we’ve given away, we’ve got four or five grand left. This is one of the leftovers,” Ryan Zeigler, Apollo Sample Curator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told collectSPACE.com.
(Image credit: collectSPACE.com)
The 0.002 ounce (0.05 gram) of Apollo 11 moon dust inside the button is a tiny percentage of the 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar material returned by the first moon landing mission. If the Artemis program successfully establishes a sustained human presence on the Moon, then the total number of samples from the six Apollo lunar landing missions could someday amount to a small percentage of lunar rock on Earth.
The Artemis 1 mission is the second time this particular button has been launched back into space. This is also the second flight of these Apollo 11 specimens aboard the Orion spacecraft. The same lucite-coated dust from Tranquility Base first boarded Exploratory Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). (will open in a new tab) in 2014. During this mission, Orion flew into high Earth orbit before diving back into the planet and plummeting down.
The button on Artemis 1 is also the second example of Apollo 11 currently in space. Another remaining example of goodwill was aboard the International Space Station. (will open in a new tab) since 2010 as part of a plaque connecting it to a stone collected from the summit of Everest, Earth’s highest mountain.
behind the moon
Orion entered the lunar sphere of influence at 2:09 pm EST (19:09 GMT) on Sunday (November 20), five days after his 25-day mission. (will open in a new tab), the transition from the Earth to the Moon is its main gravitational draw. The spacecraft performed a trajectory correction during the night and then fired up the orbital maneuvering system engine. (will open in a new tab) for two minutes and 30 seconds at 7:44 am EST (1244 GMT) on Monday to accelerate to flyby.
The closest approach followed after 11 and a half minutes.
(Image credit: NASA)
“We will fly over some of the Apollo landing sites,” Jeff Radigan, NASA Artemis 1 flight director, said at a pre-flight briefing in response to a question from collectSPACE. “We will be passing over or near the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 sites. Unfortunately, they will be in the dark, will not be lit by the sun, so we will not be able to get a good video of them. … But we will definitely be close to history when we make a powerful flyby.
As expected, communication with Orion was lost for 34 minutes starting at 7:26 AM EST (1226 GMT) as the spacecraft passed behind the Moon. The Goldstone ground station in Southern California, part of the Deep Space Network, intercepted the Orion’s signal as soon as it appeared from the far side.
Orion will enter its far retrograde orbit on Friday (November 25). A day later, it will break the distance record set by the Apollo 13 mission in 1970 when it reaches its maximum distance from Earth, approximately 268,554 miles (432,194 km), on November 28.
Orion — and its Apollo 11 payload — will again make a close flyby of the Moon on its way back to Earth on Dec. 5. The Artemis 1 mission will end in six days with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 1st. eleven.
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