Fact Check-Artemis I capsule entering low-Earth orbit before heading to Moon is not proof of flat Earth

The Artemis I Orion capsule entered low-Earth orbit prior to making a maneuver toward the Moon. Social media users shared an image with claims that the capsule’s trajectory during launch was proof that the spacecraft had gone off-course, with some going further to claim that the image is proof of a flat Earth.

The image of the Orion capsule’s launch was uploaded by a photographer to Facebook on Nov 16 (here). Reuters published similar images of the launch, with the same curved apparent trajectory viewable (here). Users pointed to the curved trajectory, seemingly moving away from the Moon, as proof that the capsule went off course. Social media users shared the image of the capsule’s launch alongside another version of the same photograph zoomed-in with an arrow pointing toward the Moon. One user shared the images with a caption that reads: “The earth is not a globe. We've been lied to on a massive scale” (here).

Others shared the side-by-side images with the comment: “‘And, we have lift-off of the Artemus mission to the moon (sic).’ Whoops – missed" (here), (here).

The curved initial launch is not proof that the spacecraft went off course. The spacecraft’s initial trajectory was not intended to aim directly at the Moon immediately after take-off.

Instead, graphics released by the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) as well as the European Space Agency (ESA) show that the capsule was intended to enter a low Earth orbit before making what’s known as a trans-lunar injection (TLI) which is a propulsive maneuver to gear the spacecraft toward the Moon (here), (here), (here).

Per ESA, a low Earth orbit was done to allow mission control to perform final checks before departing toward the Moon (here).

Meanwhile, Artemis I is utilizing a distant retrograde orbit (DRO), Wendy N. Whitman Cobb, Associate Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told Reuters. This refers to the spacecraft orbiting the Moon at high altitude in a direction opposite to the direction that the Moon travels around Earth.

“Orbital trajectories are very complicated, but put simply, when Artemis I did its trans-lunar injection (TLI) burn shortly after it entered Earth orbit, its engines reignited to push the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and towards the direction where the Moon would be several days later where it would once again initiate an engine burn to put it into this DRO,” Whitman Cobb told Reuters.

Per NASA, a DRO allows for a stable orbit where little fuel is needed over a longer period of time in deep space (here).

“So, you don’t necessarily “aim” the spacecraft at the moon wherever it was during TLI but you “aim” the spacecraft at the point in space where the moon will be several days in the future when Artemis would intersect with it,” she added.

An image released by NASA taken from the Artemis I Orion toward Earth with the capsule in distant retrograde orbit can be viewed (here).

The Orion capsule was launched from Florida on Nov 16 as part of the Artemis I mission to fly the capsule within 60 miles (97km) of the lunar surface before looping beyond the Moon and travelling back to Earth, with splash down at sea expected on Dec. 11 (here).

The Artemis program follows on from Apollo and aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface to establish a base there as a stepping-stone to future human exploration of Mars (here).

NASA did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.


False. A photo showing the Artemis I Orion capsule flying past the moon in its trajectory is not proof the earth is flat, as online posts say. The spacecraft performed a low Earth orbit before completing a translunar injection toward the Moon. The capsule also utilized a distant retrograde orbit, where it moved toward a direction that the Moon would be several days later.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here.