NASA's Orion capsule returns to Earth after a test flight to the Moon

NASA’s Orion capsule returns to Earth after a test flight to the Moon

An unmanned capsule crashes into the Pacific Ocean, ending its historic 25-day mission.

NASA’s Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after making an uncrewed trip around the Moon, capping the inaugural mission of the US space agency’s Artemis lunar program 50 years to the day after the last moon landing. Apollo.

The gumball-shaped Orion capsule, carrying a simulated crew of three mannequins wired with sensors, plunged into the ocean at 9:40 a.m. Pacific Standard Time (1740 GMT) on Sunday off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. , performing a key demonstration of how future lunar astronauts would safely return to Earth.

Its descent saw it plummet for 20 minutes at 39,400 km/h (24,500 mph) through Earth’s atmosphere when it lost its service module, exposing a heat shield that reached peak temperatures of nearly 2 760 degrees Celsius (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the final chapter of NASA’s journey to the Moon is coming to an end. Orion, back on Earth,” said Rob Navias, a commentator for the NASA speaking live.

The return capped a 25-day mission and came less than a week after Orion passed about 127 km (79 miles) above the Moon during a lunar flyby.

About two weeks ago, the capsule reached its furthest point in space, nearly 434,500 km (270,000 miles) from Earth.

Apollo’s successor program

The Orion Voyage, launched Nov. 16 on NASA’s new mega-lunar rocket from Kennedy Space Center, launched Apollo’s successor program, Artemis.

Named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister, the project aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface this decade and establish a lasting base there as a stepping stone to future human exploration of Mars.

Coincidentally, the capsule’s return on Sunday happened on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing of Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on December 11, 1972.

They were the last of 12 NASA astronauts – all white men – to walk on the Moon during a total of six Apollo missions starting in 1969.

Re-entry marked the most critical phase of Orion’s journey, testing whether its newly designed heat shield can withstand atmospheric friction and safely protect astronauts on board.

“That’s our overriding goal,” NASA Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin said during a briefing last week. “There is no arc-jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size.”

NASA's Space Launch System rocket with the Orion crew capsule lifts off for the Artemis 1 unmanned mission to the moon.
Although Orion had no astronauts on board, it flew further into space than any crew-class spacecraft had gone before. [File: Joe Rimkus Jr./Reuters]

Next flight scheduled for 2024

While no one was on the $4 billion test flight, NASA officials were excited to hold the dress rehearsal, especially after so many years of flight delays and crumbling budgets.

Fuel leaks and hurricanes conspired for further postponements in late summer and fall.

Orion’s next flight around the Moon is currently scheduled for 2024. Four astronauts will make the trip. This will be followed by a two-person lunar landing as early as 2025.

The program plans to send a woman and a person of color to the moon for the first time.

Nujoud Merancy, head of NASA’s Houston Exploration Mission Office, said getting people on the next flight “will increase the excitement.”

“Nobody went to the moon in my lifetime, did they? ” she says. “So this is the exploration that many of us have dreamed of.”

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