NASA’s Orion spacecraft will launch off the coast of San Diego this weekend. Meet the team tasked with recovering it

While Florida, Texas and Pasadena, California are often hubs for NASA’s astroworld here on Earth, San Diego will get its moment in the moonlight when the Orion spacecraft completes the final leg of the Artemis I mission on Sunday.

Orion — the capsule that will one day carry the first American woman and first person of color to the surface of the moon, and could eventually take humans to Mars — entered its last orbit around the moon on Monday, and was just beginning its push towards the Pacific Ocean. Ocean.

The exact location of the streams has not yet been determined. But, if all goes as planned, Orion will descend into the sea about 50 miles off the coast of America’s finest city on Sunday afternoon.

The visual guide below outlines each phase of the Artemis I mission. Click on Phase Three to see what’s in store for Orion when it returns to Earth on Sunday. Learn more here.

The recovery team of NASA’s Earth Exploration Systems (EGS) engineers and technicians, divers and U.S. Navy sailors has been in Portland, San Diego since shortly after Thanksgiving to practice their part in what is expected to be an impressive return.

The team trained for three days off the coast to reel in a dummy capsule and load it onto the naval base ship being transported to San Diego, which was chosen because it was an amphibious ship with a flight deck and what is known as a well deck leading into the ocean.

“The mission we’re doing is kind of amphibious in nature; it’s just about … usually it’s recovering marine craft or hovercraft, rather than doing that, we’re just orbiting,” said John Ryan, Capt. USS Portland.

Video of the practice shows more than a dozen Navy sailors on several boats meeting an imaginary Orion at sea. After a series of cables and hooks are rigged to the ship, a line known as a winch pulls Orion into a yellow cradle within the well deck of the ship. The water is then returned to the sea and Orion is transported safely to shore.

It sounds easy in theory, but any miscalculation, any bumping into Orion could be detrimental to the capsule.

When it comes time to recover the real Orion, the entire process will take about six hours, which is also enough time to complete a series of tests and collect data critical for future missions. For example, the heat shield that will prevent Orion, and ultimately the astronauts, from burning up when it penetrates Earth’s atmosphere at temperatures of 5,000 degrees must undergo about an hour and a half of image data collected before a recovery team can pull it aboard. The ship USS Portland.

“This mission is all about collecting data, so the recovery timeline will be about six hours,” said NASA’s lander and recovery coordinator Melissa Jones. “We’re collecting a lot of that data for our flight test goals; and we’re going to be very careful with the capsule. We’re ready and honored as an integrated team to bring Orion home on the last leg of its flight.”

If Orion is manned, the recovery team will only have about two hours to get the astronauts ashore for medical evaluation.

“All we’re doing now is learning how to get ahead of manned missions,” Jones added.

While recovery is solidified, one major factor is literally left up in the air — where exactly will Orion splash out? That will all be up to Jones and Flight Director Judd Freleng.

The ideal site for a “meet-me site,” as the crew calls it, is the site where the recovery team was actually training, a location within the Fleet Training Area controlled by the US Navy dubbed “San Deigo Site 3.” But, whether that location can be used depends on a number of weather factors, including wind speed and wave patterns. If location 3 isn’t an option, there are several alternative locations further offshore from San Diego. If none of those work either, Frieling said, the Orion and USS Portland could end up at Lee’s rendezvous point north toward San Clemente Island.

A map from NASA shows Orion’s ideal splashdown location off the coast of San Diego as well as several backup targets. A deep purple line shows Orion’s target trajectory.

Before the recovery team can operate, Orion must first go through a turbulent return to Earth. Its main goal is to avoid burning up when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere… no easy feat when you’re 40,000 feet above the Earth and traveling at about 24,500 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the flight control team on the ground will lose signal with Orion for five and a half minutes.

Once the spacecraft is about 200,000 feet above Earth, it will rotate in the opposite direction and fly back into space. “Wait… back to space?” You ask. What will turn out to be a bug is what NASA calls the new “skip entry” technology, which will essentially glide down Orion like a boulder through Earth’s atmosphere. When Orion orbits again to return to Earth, the capsule will be on a more direct trajectory to a landing point closer to shore — the closest in NASA history — thus protecting future astronauts who need to quickly access post-evaluation spaceflight.

As Orion returns to the inside of the globe, the capsule will continue to decelerate with the help of air friction. By the time the capsule reaches 150,000 feet, it will be traveling at 8,500 miles per hour; at 100,000 feet, 2,400 mph; And at 50,000 feet, it will only slow to 528 mph. Parachutes will be released to eventually slow Orion down to 20 mph, which is the speed Orion will be traveling at as it falls into the Pacific Ocean.

Artemis is NASA’s lunar launch program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2025.

The recovery team takes over from there, and that’s when Navy Boatsmate 2nd Class Matthew Foster begins the mission. As coxswain, he will maneuver the boat towing the Orion to the USS Portland. He took a class jointly with the Department of Defense and NASA to get proper training for this part of the mission—and he didn’t want to screw it up.

“This is very much a once-in-the-career kind of thing. Nobody really gets an opportunity like that,” Foster said, adding that he was thinking, “Just don’t mess around, just do what you’re trained to do.”

He knows his role is a small part of a program that could eventually take humanity into deep space.

The Artemis I mission is just the first stage in NASA’s lunar launch program. The next phase of the mission will have the first humans aboard a NASA spacecraft in 50 years. The third stage intends to land them on the moon.

“When we’re talking about continued exploration on the surface of the Moon and going up to Mars, Artemis I is that step,” said James Frye, NASA Exploration Systems Development Assistant, in August. “Our next step after that is Artemis II, we’re putting crew on II. Artemis III, we’re on edge as well as where we’re going to land the first woman and first person of color in this Artemis program.”

There are more ambitious goals for Artemis IV, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson: space travel from the Moon to Mars.

Ultimately, NASA hopes to establish a base on the Moon and send astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 40s. And when humanity watches humanity’s next giant leap, we can look back and know that San Diego was a small step in getting them there.

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