The Orion spacecraft, which has just completed a successful lunar orbit and will land in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday as part of NASA’s Artemis I mission, is on track for success. Two of Artemis I’s most important goals are dependent on its successful splashdown, so it would be premature to declare the mission a complete success at this point. However, Artemis I has already helped NASA prepare for its ultimate goal of returning humans to the moon and eventually sending them to Mars.
“The mission continues to progress smoothly and following the intended mission profile,” Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters on Thursday. We have accomplished several extra goals along the road, and our mission is now on pace to be a complete success.
Launched on November 16th, Artemis I sent an unmanned Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit to put NASA’s deep space exploration technologies through their paces. Orion reached a record-breaking distance from Earth of 268,563 miles, beating the previous mark established by the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.
At 12:40 pm PT on December 11, the spacecraft will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California.
At that point, the Artemis I mission will have accomplished its primary goal: showing that the Orion’s heat shield can endure the extreme heat and speed it would encounter during re-entry from the lunar surface. In its return journey, Orion will be travelling at a speed of around 24,500 kilometres per hour. The spacecraft will be exposed to temperatures outside the heat shield that are twice as hot as the surface of the sun.
NASA’s third and final mission goal, recovering the Orion spacecraft once it has splashed down, will likewise be accomplished on Sunday. The spacecraft is now being recovered by a joint effort between the United States Navy and NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Recovery team. The rescue crew has already departed San Diego for the landing spot at sea on November 7. In order to get at the landing spot in plenty of time for splashdown, they intend to be there 24 hours in advance.
NASA’s first landing site selection was to be off the coast of San Diego, California. Sarafin said that design constraints of the spacecraft, concerns for the safety of the recovery operations, and test goals including photography, certain discarded components, and the parachute deploy sequence were all taken into account when deciding where to land.
However, circumstances at the original landing spot are less than optimal due to a cold front approaching across the Southern California region. There will be some light rain, wind, and rough seas in that region on Sunday. This has resulted in NASA shifting the planned landing location south by 300 nautical miles.
To return the Orion spacecraft to Earth, NASA is using a revolutionary “skip entry” procedure that will enable the spacecraft to land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of North America. With this method, future Artemis missions’ astronauts would feel peak accelerations of around 4 Gs, which is on par with what they feel while returning from low Earth orbit.
About two hours after Orion splashes down, NASA will conduct a battery of experiments, including measuring how much heat was created on the spacecraft and how it could affect the inside. Within that window, the recovery crew will be busy snatching up the lost equipment before it sinks and doing its own battery of tests on the Orion before bringing it onboard.
Since the primary and secondary goals of the Artemis I mission will be accomplished upon splashdown, the remaining goal is to showcase the spacecraft’s operational capabilities and flight profiles. During the journey itself, NASA staff gathered a plethora of data about Orion’s communications, propulsion, and navigation systems to begin this process.
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