NASA's Orion spacecraft records stunning 'crescent Earth' on return flight home

The unmanned spacecraft is slated for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. 

The Orion spacecraft captured a stunning view of a crescent Earth as it began its trek back home Monday morning. 

The Orion spacecraft captured a stunning view of a crescent Earth as it began its trek back home Monday morning. 


NASA's historic Artemis 1 Moon mission is soon coming to close, with less than six days remaining. On Monday at 10:42 a.m. CT, the mission's unmanned Orion spacecraft successfully completed the last major leg of its trip—a return descent powered flyby burn, in which it harnessed the Moon's gravity to swing the capsule on a trajectory back to Earth. During its near-Moon flyby, the spacecraft flew about 80 miles above the lunar surface—its closest approach to the Moon—just before the 3-minute-and-27-second-long burn.

The space agency provided live coverage of Orion's lunar flyby burn, which went smoothly, the spacecraft beaming spectacular views of the Moon back to Earth as it closed in. When the space vehicle traveled behind the far side of the Moon, it lost communications with Earth for approximately 30 minutes, as was expected. The capsule is slated to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on Dec. 11. However, NASA will still need to perform a few more, albeit much smaller, course corrections before then.

"For Orion, this is not a goodbye, but a see you later, our nearest celestial neighbor as we begin to get our first glimpse of an Earth rise coming into frame," said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones on NASA's live broadcast as a view of the lunar surface from Orion's perspective appeared on the screen with a crescent Earth visible in the distance. "In this view, we see 8 billion human lives all existing upon our pale blue dot, our blue marble, our very own spaceship Earth. And after a long journey, Orion is now coming home."

The uncrewed Orion first launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on Nov. 16. On Nov. 21, the spacecraft flew within 81 miles of the Moon's surface, the farthest distance traveled from Earth by any spacecraft built for humans. On Nov. 25, the spacecraft entered what is known as a distant retrograde orbit, which NASA describes as a stable orbit high above the lunar surface that travels in the opposite direction of the Moon's revolution around Earth, where it remained for several weeks. On Dec. 1, Orion completed a burn to break free from its target orbit, starting off the return phase of the mission. The capsule performed a minor course correction burn on Dec. 4.

The Artemis 1 mission is designed to test the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft ahead of the crewed Artemis 2 mission, during which astronauts will make a similar trip to the Moon and back as early as 2024. That mission will be followed by Artemis III, which will put astronauts on the Moon in the first human landing since the final Apollo mission in 1972. However, the Artemis program's goals go even further, with plans to build the first Moon base to establish a long-term human presence on the lunar surface by 2028 and eventually send humans to Mars. 

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