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Epic! Orion moonship imaged from Earth

Orion moonship imaged: Streaks of light form star trails with a tiny dot in their midst, which is the Orion spacecraft.
View larger. | Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome did something very difficult. He and his team captured this image of the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on November 27, 2022, as the craft moved in a distant part of its orbit around the moon. Orion is the 1st craft designed for humans to venture so far beyond the moon. It’s a test mission that’ll culminate in humanity’s return to the moon, hopefully in this decade. Read more about Orion imaged from Earth. Image via Gianluca Masi/ Virtual Telescope.

Originally published at the Virtual Telescope Project’s website on November 27, 2022. Re-printed here with permission. The streaks on the photo are star trails. The tiny dot, with the arrow pointing to it, is the Orion craft.

Orion moonship imaged from Earth

The Virtual Telescope Project did something epic: We imaged the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft with our robotic telescopes, while it is orbiting the moon. We are proud and pleased to share this unique image with the world.

The image above comes from the average of three 120-second and one 240-second exposures, remotely taken with the Elena (PlaneWave 17″ + Paramount ME + SBIG STL-6303E) robotic unit available at Virtual Telescope in Rome. The telescope tracked Orion’s apparent motion. This is why stars look like long trails while the probe is a sharp dot of light.

Taking such a picture was quite difficult. While we planned to capture Orion on its way to the moon, weather made that impossible. And, once the weather cooperated, the moon was new, so not visible from Earth. We tried this evening, at dusk, hoping to spot it, despite the target was less than 20 degrees high above the southwestern horizon and just 6 degrees away from the moon, adding its glare to an already bright background. I estimated the brightness for Orion to be around magnitude 16.5 or so.

Available now! 2023 EarthSky lunar calendar. A unique and beautiful poster-sized calendar showing phases of the moon every night of the year. Makes a great gift!

Tracking the spacecraft from Earth

To capture the spacecraft, we used the JPL’s Horizons System and asked our Software Bisque’s Paramount ME robotic mount to track it, something we have been doing many times. So, we started imaging and the very first image showed Orion pretty well: Everything worked to perfection.

At the imaging time on November 27, Orion was about 427,000 kilometers [265,000 miles] from us, still father than the moon. Yesterday (November 26), Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans to deep space and back, as NASA said. Read about the mission at EarthSky.

This is a record-setting image: To our knowledge, no other images of Artemis 1 Orion were taken before via a telescope from the ground. We plan to cover live the return of this spacecraft, so stay tuned!

Bottom line: Orion moonship imaged when it was still more distant from Earth than the moon, on November 27, 2022. Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project reports.

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