Nasa’s Orion spacecraft lands on Earth after completing journey around the Moon
Image credit: reuters
Nasa’s Orion spacecraft has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after making an uncrewed voyage around the Moon as part of the Artemis programme.
Orion is a partially reusable spacecraft which is designed to be capable of supporting a crew of six beyond low Earth orbit.
The spacecraft was blasted into space using Nasa’s Space Launch System (SLS) on 16 November from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Over the course of 25.5 days, the space agency tested Orion in the harsh environment of deep space before flying astronauts on Artemis II.
“The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft – which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 Moon landing – is the crowning achievement of Artemis I. From the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the Moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration,” said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson.
During the mission, Orion performed two lunar flybys, coming within 80 miles (130km) of the lunar surface.
At its farthest distance during the mission, Orion travelled nearly 270,000 miles (435,000km) from our home planet, more than 1,000 times farther than where the International Space Station orbits Earth, to intentionally stress systems before flying crew.
“With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon, 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.”
Prior to entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the crew module separated from the European Service Module which doubles up as its primary power source and main propulsion component until it is discarded at the end of each mission.
During re-entry, Orion endured temperatures about half as hot as the surface of the Sun at around 2,500℃. Within about 20 minutes, Orion slowed from nearly 25,000mph to about 20mph for its parachute-assisted splashdown.
During the flight test, Orion stayed in space longer than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has done without docking to a space station. While in a distant lunar orbit, Orion surpassed the record for distance travelled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans, previously set during Apollo 13.
“Orion has returned from the Moon and is safely back on planet Earth,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. “With splashdown we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment, where it exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth’s atmosphere from lunar velocities.”
Recovery teams are now working to secure Orion for the journey home, where technicians will offload the spacecraft and transfer it by truck back to Kennedy. Once at Kennedy, teams will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including Commander Moonikin Campos, the space biology experiments, Snoopy, and the official flight kit. Next, the capsule and its heat shield will undergo testing and analysis over the course of several months.
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