After making a flyby of the Moon and venturing further into space than any previous habitable spacecraft, NASA’s Orion capsule is due to land Sunday in the final test of a high-risk mission called Artemis.
As it plummets through Earth’s atmosphere at a rate of 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) per hour, the gummy-shaped traveler will have to endure a temperature of 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,000 Fahrenheit), about half that of the sun’s surface.
Splashdown in the Pacific off the Mexican island of Guadalupe is scheduled for 1739 GMT (9:39 local time).
Achieving success in this just over 25-day mission is critical for NASA, which has invested tens of billions of dollars in the Artemis program to return people to the Moon and prepare for a subsequent trip, one day, to Mars.
So far the first test of this unmanned spacecraft has gone very well.
But it’s only in the last minutes of this journey that the real challenge comes: to see if Orion’s heat shield, the largest ever built, really holds up.
“It’s safety-critical equipment. It’s designed to protect the spacecraft and the passengers, the astronauts on board. So the heat shield has to work,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager.
A first test of the capsule was carried out in 2014 but that time the capsule remained in Earth orbit, then returned to the atmosphere at a slower speed of about 20,000 miles per hour.
– Choppers, divers and boats –
A US Navy vessel, the USS Portland, has been positioned in the Pacific to retrieve the Orion capsule in an exercise NASA has been rehearsing for years. Helicopters and dinghies will also be employed for this task.
The falling spacecraft will be slowed first by Earth’s atmosphere and then by a network of 11 parachutes until it reaches speeds of 20 miles (30 kilometers) per hour when it finally hits the blue waters of the Pacific.
Once there, NASA will let Orion float for two hours, much longer than if the astronauts were inside, in order to collect data.
“We’ll see how the heat absorbs back into the crew module and how that affects the temperature inside,” said Jim Geffre, NASA’s Orion vehicle integration manager.
The divers will then attach cables to Orion to hoist it onto the USS Portland, which is an amphibious transport vessel, the rear of which will be partially submerged. This water will be pumped out slowly so that the spacecraft can rest on a platform designed to contain it.
All of this should take four to six hours from the time the ship first crashes.
The Navy vessel will then head to San Diego, California, where the spacecraft will be unloaded a few days later.
By the time it returns to Earth, the spacecraft will have traveled 1.4 million miles since it lifted off Nov. 16 with the help of a monstrous rocket ship called the SLS.
At its closest point to the Moon it flew within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the surface. And it broke the distance record for a habitable capsule, venturing 268,000 miles (432,000 kilometers) from our planet.
– Artemis 2 and 3 –
The recovery of the spacecraft will allow NASA to gather crucial data for future missions.
This includes information about the ship’s condition after its flight, data from monitors that measure acceleration and vibration, and the performance of a special vest worn on a dummy in the capsule to test how to protect people from radiation during space flight.
Some components of the capsule should be good for reuse in the Artemis 2 mission, which is already in an advanced design stage.
This next mission scheduled for 2024 will take a crew to the Moon, but still without landing there. NASA is expected soon to name the astronauts selected for this trip.
Artemis 3, scheduled for 2025, will see a spacecraft land for the first time on the south pole of the Moon, which features water in the form of ice.
Only 12 people, all white men, have set foot on the moon. They did this during the Apollo missions, the last of which was in 1972.
Artemis is supposed to send a woman and a black person to the Moon for the first time.
NASA’s goal is to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon, through a base on its surface and a space station around it. Having people learn about living on the Moon should help engineers develop technologies for a years-long journey to Mars, perhaps in the late 1930s.