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The Artemis I mission — an uncrewed 25-day test flight around the moon intended to pave the way for future astronaut missions — came to a momentous end as NASA’s Orion spacecraft successfully splashed down the ocean on Sunday.
The spacecraft has completed the final leg of its journey, approaching the thick inner layer of Earth’s atmosphere after traveling 239,000 miles (385,000 km) between the Moon and Earth. It splashed at 12:40 p.m. ET Sunday in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja California.
This last step was among the most important and dangerous stages of the mission.
But after I splashed out, Rob Navias, the NASA commentator who led Sunday’s broadcast, called the re-entry process “textbook.”
“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday. “This is an extraordinary day.”
The capsule is now bobbing in the Pacific Ocean, where it will stay until about 3 p.m. ET as NASA gathers additional data and runs some tests. This process, like the rest of the mission, is meant to make sure the Orion spacecraft is ready to fly for the astronauts.
“We’re testing for all the heat that came and was generated on the capsule. We want to make sure we classify how that’s going to affect the interior of the capsule,” NASA flight director Judd Freleng told reporters last week.
A fleet of rescue vehicles—including boats, a helicopter, and a US Navy ship called the USS Portland—awaits nearby.
The spacecraft was traveling at about 32 times the speed of sound (24,850 mph or roughly 40,000 kilometers per hour) when it hit the air — so fast that compression waves caused the spacecraft’s exterior to heat up to about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees). . Celsius).
“The next big test is the heat shield,” Nelson told CNN in a phone interview Thursday, referring to the barrier designed to protect the Orion capsule from the painful physical factors of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
The intense heat also caused air molecules to ionize, causing them to build up of the plasma that caused a 5-minute outage of communications, according to Artemis I flight director Judd Frieling.
Interactive: Trace the path Artemis will take around the moon and back
When the capsule reached about 200,000 feet (61,000 meters) above the ground, it performed a roll maneuver that briefly sent the capsule back up—kind of like skipping a boulder across the surface of a lake.
There are several reasons for using 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.
There was another communications blackout that lasted about three minutes after the skip maneuver.
As it embarked on its final descent, the capsule’s speed slowed dramatically, hurling thousands of miles per hour until its parachutes deployed. By the time it fell, Orion was traveling at about 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour).
While there were no astronauts on this test mission—just a few mannequins rigged to collect data and a Snoopy doll—Nelson, the head of NASA, stressed the importance of demonstrating that the capsule could 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.
Orion traveled nearly 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers) during this mission on a swing trajectory to a distant lunar orbit, carrying the capsule farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans has traveled.
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 payload 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 an A-plus, 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. But if you Teacher, I’ll give her an A plus.”
With the success of the Artemis I mission, NASA will now 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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