The Orion spacecraft crew module has parachuted into ocean off the coast of Mexico after almost 26 days in space, ending the first of three Artemis missions which will return humans to the Moon over the next three years
The module re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday afternoon local time and has been recovered by nearby NASA ground crews and the United States Navy.
As the major test before astronauts are inserted into the mix, Artemis I chalked up several important milestones for NASA.
The new Space Launch System upon which Orion was launched into space is the most powerful rocket ever built, blasting out four million kilograms of thrust when it set off from the Kennedy Space Centre.
At its furthest point, Orion was travelling over 434,000 kilometres from the Earth – a distance no spacecraft designed for human space flight has gone previously.
That was done intentionally as part of a deep space stress-test of the spacecraft’s instrumentation, including the on-board mannequin clad with radiation and force sensors and the new Orion Crew Survival System space suit, and several space biology experiments.
Two lunar flybys coming within 130 kilometres of the Moon’s surface were also completed.
Orion hit Earth’s atmosphere at speeds more than 40,000 km/h and temperatures of over 2760°C when it completed the first ‘skip entry’ for a spacecraft intended for human crews.
This highly controlled re-entry method ensures a vehicle returning to Earth lands where mission control intends.
Artemis’ predecessor Apollo missions returned to Earth directly, but the skip entry allows Orion’s crew module more time and distance to accurately splashdown near recovery crews.
This will benefit the astronauts in the Artemis II and III missions, as they will experience two entry events at four g’s each, rather than a single, high-acceleration descent of around six or seven g’s.
Now for humans and Artemis II
After technical issues and the onset of two hurricanes off the Florida coast kept the projected grounded until its eventual launch on November 16, the end of the Artemis I mission will see NASA review the effect of deep space travel on the Orion systems.
Artemis II is due for launch in May 2024 and will carry four astronauts into lunar orbit on a journey lasting up to three weeks.
“With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission which will fly crew to the Moon for the first time, as a part of the next era of exploration,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.
“This begins our path to a regular cadence of missions and a sustained human presence at the Moon for scientific discovery and to prepare for human missions to Mars.”
The Orion splashdown took place exactly 50 years after the most recent moon landing by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.