Orion’s 16 cameras do more than take pretty pictures of the Earth

An artist's concept of the Artemis 1 mission shortly after launch with a fully extended solar wing array.

An artist’s concept of the Artemis 1 mission shortly after launch with a fully extended solar wing array.
Image: NASA/Liam Yanulis

The Artemis era has officially begun after the successful launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, which carried the Orion capsule into space. As the spacecraft begins uncrewed for the first time trip to the moon and back, NASA’s built-in cameras will document the whole thing trip.

NASA has access to 16 cameras aboard Orion that it uses to document Artemis 1. Orion is currently on a 25-day mission to a point 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond the moon and back, and NASA’s cameras will help the agency monitor how the spacecraft handles the journey before astronauts climb aboard for future Artemis missions.

NASA says a specialized camera mounted on the crew module will guide Orion optical navigation. This camera can take pictures of the earth and the moon, but the size and position of these celestial objects relative to Orion allow the capsule to determine its position in space. The camera also collects data on distant stars to compare with pre-existing star charts to further help Orion navigate through space.

A frontal view of the Orion spacecraft with its solar panels deployed (top) and side views (bottom), complete with the positions of the onboard cameras.

A frontal view of the Orion spacecraft with its solar panels deployed (top) and side views (bottom), complete with the positions of the onboard cameras.
Image: NASA

Among Orion’s many cameras is one mounted on the outside of the capsule that points to the European Service Module, which propels Orion to the Moon. Additional cameras are used to test video conferencing capabilities and to stare into the darkness of the room. Orion also has four cameras attached to its X-shaped solar panel wings that face the capsule itself, giving NASA a 360-degree view of Orion’s exterior. Eight cameras on the European Service Module were used to document the separation of booster and core stages.

“Each of Orion’s four solar array wings has a commercially available camera at the tip that is highly modified for space use and provides a view of the spacecraft’s exterior,” said David Melendrez in a NASA blog. Melendrez is the image integration lead for the Orion program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Of this week launch of Orion is NASA’s first step toward a serious return to the Moon and future space missions. While the portfolio of 16 cameras documenting nearly every move of Orion may seem excessive, they’ll capture crucial evidence of how the spacecraft fares before it was used to take astronauts to the moon and beyond.

More: What’s next for the Orion spacecraft as it heads to the moon

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