Nasa's Orion

Nasa’s Orion capsule splashes down in the Pacific after its journey to the moon

cosmos science Technology

On Sunday, 50 years to the day after the last moon landing by Apollo, Nasa’s Orion spacecraft completed the first mission of its new Artemis lunar programme by crashing through Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Before NASA launches its first crew of Artemis humans to orbit the moon in the coming years, the gumdrop-shaped Nasa’s Orion capsule touched down in the water at 9:40 a.m. PST (1740 GMT) off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, showcasing a high-stakes homecoming.

After splashdown, Mike Sarafin, the mission manager for NASA’s Artemis I spacecraft, said, “This was a tough mission, and this is what mission success looks like.” He added that his team didn’t immediately identify problems with Orion’s return from space.

After the capsule’s splashdown, a US military helicopter and a fleet of swift boats inspected it for almost five hours before hoisting Orion onto a US Navy ship for a trip to San Diego, California.

Nasa's Orion

The splashdown came about two weeks after the spacecraft had travelled almost 270,000 miles (434,500 km) from Earth, and less than a week after it had made a fly-by of the moon at a distance of roughly 79 miles (127 km).

About 30 minutes before splashing down, the capsule shed its service module in orbit, exposing a heatshield that reached peak temperatures of about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) during its blazing-fast descent. The drop into Earth’s atmosphere was scorching and took 20 minutes.

The capsule’s speed was reduced from 24,500 mph (39,400 kph) by atmospheric friction to 325 mph before two sets of parachutes helped it drop down to an anticipated 20 mph at splashdown. According to Navias, the capsule’s descent rate was “excellent.”

The spacecraft launched on Nov. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, riding atop NASA’s massive next-generation Space Launch System (SLS), currently, the most potent rocket ever built and the largest NASA has produced since the Saturn V of the Apollo period.

The first SLS-Orion mission launched Artemis, the successor programme to Apollo, which aims to send men back to the moon this decade and build a viable base there as a stepping stone to further manned exploration of Mars.

Mission engineers will spend months reviewing the Artemis I mission’s data. As early as 2024, a crewed Artemis II trip to the moon and return is possible. A few more years later, Artemis III will make the program’s first manned lunar landing, which will include a woman.

According to NASA’s Johnson Space Center director Vanessa Wyche, the agency plans to announce the members of its astronaut crew for the Artemis II mission in the first half of 2023.

Despite Orion’s unanticipated communication failures and an electrical problem during its orbit around the moon, Nasa has praised both SLS and Orion’s performance thus far, claiming that they have surpassed the expectations of the U.S. space agency.

By chance, the events surrounding Artemis I’s return to Earth took place on December 11, 1972, the 50th anniversary of Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt’s Apollo 17 lunar landing. They were the final of 12 NASA astronauts who made moonwalks through six different Apollo missions beginning in 1969.

After decades of focusing on space shuttles and the ISS, NASA’s human spaceflight programme is being redirected beyond low-Earth orbit with the Artemis programme, which bears the name of Apollo’s twin sister. Re-entry was regarded by NASA as the most important stage of Orion’s flight because it would test how well the spacecraft’s newly developed heat shield would endure atmospheric friction and safeguard the astronauts aboard.

The Artemis I mission, which is the first launch of the Boeing Co-built (BA.N) SLS and the first combination with Nasa’s Orion, which previously flew a brief two-orbit test launched on a smaller Delta IV rocket in 2014, has been characterised by NASA officials as an experimental flight. Built by Lockheed Martin, the capsule (LMT.N).

Unlike Apollo, which grew out of the U.S.-Soviet space race during the Cold War, Artemis is more science-driven and international in scope, partnering with organisations from other nations and private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the space agencies of Europe, Canada, and Japan.

The propulsion system housing provided by the European Space Agency for Orion, which was discarded before the capsule’s entry into the atmosphere, “performed beautifully,” according to Philippe Deloo, the mission manager for ESA.