Here’s what NASA’s Orion spacecraft is doing over Thanksgiving weekend

Since taking off aboard the Space Launch System rocket last Wednesday, NASA’s Orion spacecraft has had a remarkably smooth journey. But it’s far from over. While millions of Americans prepare for a long weekend with family and friends, Orion will continue its 25-day mission, including conducting a crucial burn on Friday to enter a distant retrograde orbit around the moon.

Orion is eight days into its 25-day journey around the moon. The capsule is a cornerstone of NASA’s Artemis program, which has the aim of returning humans to the moon by the end of the decade and, in the long-term, making our presence there permanent. Orion’s mission has been dubbed Artemis I, a reflection of both the start of the Artemis program and the capsule finally becoming operational.

The journey hasn’t been without its hiccups, though these have been relatively minor. Perhaps the most substantial occurred very early this morning, when NASA unexpectedly lost the data connection to the spacecraft for 47 minutes. Engineers are still working to figure out why this happened, but data was restored with no impact to Orion.

So what exactly does the rest of this week have in store for Orion? Well, quite a lot.

Right now, the spacecraft is on its way toward distant retrograde orbit (DRO). The orbit is so named because of its altitude from the moon’s surface, and because the orbit travels in a direction opposite the moon’s orbit around the Earth. DRO is considered highly stable, and because of that, little fuel is required for a spacecraft to maintain its position in orbit.

On Friday, Orion will conduct the DRO insertion burn using the European Service Module, the power and propulsion components of the spacecraft built by the European Space Agency. The following day, Orion is set to make a new record for the farthest distance traveled by a human-rated spacecraft, journeying 248,655 miles from Earth. The spacecraft will reach its maximum distance from Earth on Monday, at 268,552 miles.

Orion will stay in DRO for about a week, during which time spacecraft systems will continue to be tested.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis Mission Manager, described the mission back in April as a “true stress test” of the spacecraft in the deep space environment.

“Without crew aboard the first mission, DRO allows Orion to spend more time in deep space for a rigorous mission to ensure spacecraft systems, like guidance, navigation, communication, power, thermal control and others are ready to keep astronauts safe on future crewed missions,” he said.

Beyond this point, Orion will have to conduct two more crucial burns, the first to depart from DRO and the second to slingshot back around the moon and return the spacecraft on a trajectory back to Earth. The grand finale will come when Orion returns to Earth. It’s anticipated that the capsule will experience temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit upon atmospheric reentry, and NASA needs to see that the spacecraft is up for it before using it to fly astronauts later this decade.