Nasa’s Orion capsule and its test dummies have swooped one last time around the moon – flying over a couple of Apollo landing sites before heading home.
Orion will aim for a Pacific splashdown on Sunday off the coast of San Diego, setting the stage for astronauts on the next flight in a couple of years.
The capsule passed within 80 miles of the far side of the moon, using lunar gravity as a slingshot for the 237,000-mile ride back to Earth.
It spent a week in a wide, sweeping lunar orbit.
Once emerging from behind the moon and regaining communication with flight controllers in Houston, Orion beamed back photos of a close-up moon and a crescent Earth — Earthrise — in the distance.
“Orion now has its sights set on home,” said mission control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule also passed over the landing sites of Apollo 12 and 14.
But at 1,200 miles up, it was too high to make out the descent stages of the lunar landers or anything else left behind by astronauts over 50 years ago.
During a similar flyover two weeks ago, it was too dark for pictures. This time, it was daylight.
Deputy chief flight director Zebulon Scoville said nearby craters and other geologic features would be visible in any pictures, but little else.
“It will be more of a tip of the hat and a historical nod to the past,” Mr Scoville told reporters last week.
The three-week test flight has exceeded expectations so far, according to officials.
But the biggest challenge still lies ahead: hitting the atmosphere at over 30 times the speed of sound and surviving the fiery reentry.
Orion blasted off on November 16 on the debut flight of Nasa’s most powerful rocket ever, the Space Launch System (SLS).
The next flight — in as early as 2024 — will try to carry four astronauts around the moon.
The third mission, targeted for 2025, will feature the first lunar landing by astronauts since the Apollo moon programme ended 50 years ago this month.
Apollo 17 rocketed away on December 7 1972 from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre, carrying Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans.
Mr Cernan and Mr Schmitt spent three days on the lunar surface, the longest stay of the Apollo era, while Mr Evans orbited the moon.
Only Mr Schmitt is still alive.