See NASA's Daring Artemis I Moon Mission Unfold in Stunning Images

NASA's uncrewed Orion spacecraft journeyed around the moon and back to Earth. This is its story in pictures.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
Gray moon looms large as Orion spacecraft appears on the left side in a partial view.
1 of 24 NASA Johnson

Hello, moon

It's been decades since a spacecraft rated to carry humans has taken a trip to the moon. NASA opened up a new era in space exploration with the Nov. 16 launch of the Artemis I mission, which sent the Orion spacecraft around the moon. The craft was uncrewed but was designed for human passengers. 

Orion safely returned to Earth with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on Dec. 11. The successful trip sets the stage for Artemis II to carry astronauts into space.

This is what it's all about.  A camera on the tip of one of Orion's solar arrays captured a combination spacecraft selfie and moon shot. One remarkable feature of this view is that it shows the far side of the moon. On Earth, we only see one face of the moon. Orion got to fly around the other side. 

Massive SLS rocket with Orion capsule on top is atop a crawler-transporter arriving at Florida launchpad on a cloudy morning.
2 of 24 NASA/Joel Kowsky

Artemis I arrives at launchpad

This is how it started. Before Orion could get up close and personal with the moon, it had to launch on NASA's massive Space Launch System rocket. Artemis I faced many delays and setbacks. This image shows the rocket's return to the launchpad at Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 4. Artemis I had spent time in a garage during Hurricane Ian, and later had to weather a second major storm when Hurricane Nicole hit the coast

Artemis I rocket takes off in the dark with engines blazing.
3 of 24 NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA Artemis Launch

During the dark hours early in the morning on Nov. 16, NASA's Artemis I blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty and packs a wallop. SLS safely delivered the uncrewed Orion spacecraft to space.

A black and white image of the Artemis I launch.
4 of 24 NASA/Joel Kowsky

Artistic view of Artemis I launch

You can never have too many views of an epic rocket launch. This artful black and white vision shows Artemis I taking off from Florida in the wee morning hours of Nov. 16, 2022.

Part of the Orion spacecraft in white with a solar array extended and the partial Earth near the bottom, dark space all around.
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Orion poses with Earth

NASA may have set its sights on the moon with Artemis I, but the heart of the mission is about humanity back on Earth. Orion captured a poignant view of its home planet as it headed for the moon.

Part of the Orion spacecraft pops out in white in a screenshot view showing Earth in the background.
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Orion first views of Earth

This screenshot shared by the European Space Agency was one of Orion's first views of Earth after launch as seen by a camera mounted on a solar array wing.

A camera mounted on one of Orion's solar arrays captured this gorgeous selfie of the spacecraft prior to its moon flyby.
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Orion snaps a selfie

Orion is stocked with multiple cameras both inside and out. They're used to document the journey and also to help NASA inspect the spacecraft. Orion experienced smooth sailing on its mission around the moon. It set out to prove the capsule is ready to carry humans on the next Artemis mission.

Interior of Orion looking very blue with a mannequin visible and a equipment all around.s
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Inside Orion

There were no humans on board Orion for the Artemis I mission, but there was plenty happening on the interior. Engineers activated a technology demonstration called Callisto, seen in the center of this image. Off to the left is a manikin named Moonikin Campos. Dressed in the same kind of spacesuit Artemis astronauts will wear, it will help NASA understand the forces and vibrations humans will experience on board.

Interior of Orion capsule lit up in pink with manikin sitting to the side and the Callisto tech demo hardware installed in the center. Windows up above.
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Orion dressed in pink

The Callisto technology demonstration inside the Orion spacecraft was used to change the lighting. Callisto includes a version of Amazon's voice-operated Alexa assistant. Alexa also triggered an onboard party mode with flashing lights.

Orion spacecraft appears whitish with red NASA worm logo and part of a solar array as the moon looms partially lit in the distance.
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Orion and the moon

NASA's Orion spacecraft has an A+ selfie game. On Nov. 21, Orion zipped by the moon during a close approach maneuver that helped put it on track for its planned orbit. This view shows it heading toward our lunar neighbor.

Partially lit moon looking gorgeous.
11 of 24 NASA Johnson

Moon portrait

On the sixth day of its flight test on the Artemis I mission, NASA's Orion spacecraft captured this gorgeous portrait of the moon in the distance.

"Orion uses the optical navigation camera to capture imagery of the Earth and the moon at different phases and distances, providing an enhanced body of data to certify its effectiveness under different lighting conditions as a way to help orient the spacecraft on future missions with crew," NASA said.

A partial view of Earth in black and white against nothing but black.
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Earth is a beauty

Orion's navigation camera took this starkly beautiful black and white portrait of Earth. It's not the fanciest image from the mission, but it places our planet in perspective against the wide darkness of space.

Weird black and white close view of the moon's many craters with some strange camera artifacts that look like striations.
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Craters galore

On Nov. 21, 2022, the Orion spacecraft got a close look at some of the moon's many craters. The view comes from the spacecraft's navigation camera, so it's in black and white and shows some camera artifacts in the form of striations. 

"This photo and others captured are the closest photos of the Moon from a human-rated vessel since Apollo," said NASA.

Orion with a big red NASA logo and cone shaped top hulks out in the foreground why the moon and Earth appear small in the upper corner.
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Family portrait

Orion, the moon and Earth appeared together in a photo. This is from the 13th day of the spacecraft's flight.

Off to one side is a set of protruding white engines on the back of the Orion service module.
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Business end

On flight day 16, Orion captured a view of the back of its service module. The European Space Agency built the service module. The main engine and smaller thrusters help the spacecraft maneuver.

Round Orion spacecraft painted white appears in part along with multi-colored solar panel and the moon below.
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Orion solar array

In the right light, Orion's solar arrays look both complex and beautiful. The moon appears down below. This image came as the spacecraft was getting ready for its return journey to Earth.

A screenshot shows the moon looking huge with at tiny blue dot of Earth peeking out and part of the Orion spacecraft off to the side.
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It's the trifecta. A camera on Orion captured a look at the spacecraft, the moon (looking huge and gray) and Earth (looking tiny and blue) peeking out. 

A tiny, tiny dot of blue is Earth against black.
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Earth as a dot

How small is Earth compared with space? NASA's Orion spacecraft captured a distant view of its home planet during the Artemis I flight test. This image comes from a camera mounted at the tip of one of Orion's solar array wings. The spacecraft returned for a splashdown on Dec. 11.

Orion close-up look at the moon's surface shows shadowed craters.
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Close to the moon

On the 20th day of Orion's flight, the spacecraft slipped by the moon and snapped a series of stunning close-ups highlighting scenic craters.

Orion close-up look at the moon's surface shows shadowed craters spread out across a gray landscape.
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Moon poses for pics

Orion's flyby of the moon on its way produced some lovely looks at the satellite's surface.

Orion close-up look at the moon's surface shows shadowed craters with radiating features extending out.
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Moon flyby

A moon flyby on the way home for Orion gave the spacecraft a chance to capture the surface with its optical navigation camera.

Orion capsule looks small with red and white striped parachutes open above it and a wide expanse of blue ocean below.
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Orion parachutes to the ocean

The Artemis I Orion mission concluded on Dec. 11 when the spacecraft returned to Earth. It survived the blazing heat of atmospheric reentry and splashed down with an assist from a group of parachutes. The spacecraft was recovered from its landing spot in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico.

Cone-shaped Orion spacecraft floats in ocean water with five orange inflatables above it.
23 of 24 NASA/James M. Blair

Orion floats

Orion's parachute-assisted return to Earth landed it safely in the Pacific Ocean where it floated as the recovery crew came to retrieve it. 

Top-down view of orange round inflatables above Orion capsule with the surround of a ship around it.
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Orion safe and snug

NASA's Artemis I moon mission ended in triumph as the USS Portland winched the spacecraft to safety after splashdown on Dec. 11. There's a lot of work ahead before Artemis II can carry astronauts into space, but the preliminary results point to Artemis I being a success. Orion will take a trip back to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for study and evaluation.

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