The historic lunar mission concludes with the Orion capsule spray | CNN

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The Artemis I mission — an uncrewed 25-day test flight around the moon meant to pave the way for future astronaut missions — is approaching as NASA’s Orion spacecraft is expected to finish To do a sprint in the ocean on Sunday.

The spacecraft is finishing the last leg of its journey, approaching the thick inner layer of Earth’s atmosphere after crossing 239,000 miles (385,000 km) between the Moon and Earth. It is scheduled to launch at 12:40 p.m. ET Sunday in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California, Mexico. NASA will broadcast live coverage of the event, starting at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday.

The Orion capsule was scheduled to splash down near San Diego, but NASA officials said Thursday that rain, winds and big waves have moved in. area, and no longer complies with the space agency’s weather standards.

This last step will be among the most important and dangerous stages of the mission.

“We’re not out of the woods yet. The next big test is a heat shield,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told CNN in a phone interview Thursday, referring to the barrier designed to protect the Orion capsule from the traumatic physicals of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The spacecraft will be traveling about 32 times the speed of sound (24,850 miles per hour or nearly 40,000 kilometers per hour) when it hits the air — so fast that compression waves would heat the spacecraft’s exterior to about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Fahrenheit). percentage). Extreme heat will also ionize air molecules, causing buildup of the plasma that is expected to cause a 5-minute outage of communications, according to Artemis I flight director Judd Freleng.

Interactive: Trace the path Artemis will take around the moon and back

As the capsule reaches about 200,000 miles (322,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, it will perform a roll maneuver that will briefly return the capsule to the top — kind of like skipping a boulder across the surface of a lake.

There are several reasons to attempt the skip maneuver.

“Skip entry gives us a stable landing site that supports astronaut safety because it allows teams on the ground to better and faster coordinate recovery efforts,” said Joe Bomba, president of Orion Aeronautics at Lockheed Martin, in a statement. Lockheed is NASA’s prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft.

“By dividing the heat and force of re-entry into two events, skip-entry also provides benefits such as reducing g-forces experienced by astronauts,” according to Lockheed, referring to the crushing forces humans experience during spaceflight.

As the capsule embarks on its final descent, it will slow down dramatically, dropping thousands of miles per hour at speeds until its parachutes deploy. By the time it splashes out, Orion will be traveling 20 mph (32 kph).

While there are no astronauts on this test mission — just a few mannequins equipped to collect data and a Snoopy doll — Nelson, the NASA chief, stressed the importance of proving that the capsule can return safely.

The space agency’s plans are to turn the Artemis moon missions into a program that will send astronauts to Mars, a journey that will have a much faster and bolder re-entry process.

Upon return from this mission, Orion will have traveled nearly 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers) on a lunar trajectory to distant lunar orbit, carrying the capsule farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans.

A secondary objective for this mission was the Orion Service Module, a cylindrical attachment at the bottom of the spacecraft, to deploy 10 small satellites. But at least four of those satellites failed after being dumped into orbit, including a small moon lander developed in Japan and one of NASA’s own payloads that was supposed to be one of the first small satellites for interplanetary space exploration. .

On its journey, the spacecraft has captured stunning images of Earth, and during two close flybys it has captured images of the moon’s surface and its remarkable “Earthrise.”

Nelson said that if he had to give the Artemis I mission a letter grade so far, it would be an A.

“Not excellentAnd the Simply because we expect things to go wrong. The good news is that when something goes wrong, NASA knows how to fix it,” Nelson said Teacher, I’ll give her an A plus.”

If the Artemis I mission is successful, NASA will dive into the data collected on this flight and look to select a crew for the Artemis II mission, which could take off in 2024.

Artemis II aims to send astronauts on a trajectory similar to that of Artemis I, flying around the Moon but not landing on its surface.

Artemis III mission, currently Scheduled for release in 2025 To return the shoes to the Moon, NASA officials said it would involve the first woman and first person of color to achieve such a feat.

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