The Orion capsule of NASA’s Artemis I mission returned to Earth after nearly a month in space. The landing of the spacecraft, without a crew on board but with a dummy full of sensors, took place as scheduled in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California. Waiting for the Orion capsule was the USS Portland of the US Navy, with a specialized crew that recovered the vessel and loaded the capsule onboard the ship to bring it back to the Kennedy Space Center.
Technicians in Florida will thoroughly inspect Orion, recovering the data recorded on board and removing 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 for several months.
The special payload of the mission
As mentioned before, the capsule carried some special equipment, for example, Commander Moonikin Campos. This manikin occupied the commander’s seat inside Orion and was equipped with two radiation sensors and two sensors to record acceleration and vibration throughout the mission. The dummy also wore a first-generation Orion Crew Survival System suit – a spacesuit that astronauts will wear during launch, entry, and other dynamic phases of their missions.
Other special guests on the journey around the Moon were several small biological passengers to help pave the way for future human explorers. The space biology experiments are an investigation that will look at the nutritional value of seeds, DNA repair of fungi, adaptation of yeast, and gene expression of algae to help researchers better understand how biological systems are affected by the deep space environment.
Orion performed two lunar flybys during the mission, coming within 128,7 kilometers (80 miles) of the lunar surface. At its farthest distance during the mission, Orion traveled nearly 434,000 kilometers (270,000 miles) from our home planet, more than 1,000 times more distant than where the International Space Station orbits Earth.
Everything was done to intentionally stress systems before the flying crew. Also, for the aim of the security of the crew onboard, another crucial milestone was the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere involving a particular maneuver, a giant heat shield, and the parachute that secured the soft landing into the Ocean.
The special maneuver, literally jumping on the atmosphere.
I talked about the importance of astronaut safety, right? In this regard, NASA implemented an almost science fiction method to dissipate the enormous energy of the re-entry by bouncing the capsule on the surface of the Earth’s atmosphere, making it enter the sky more gently; this maneuver is called “SKIP”. After the final burn and separation from the service module, Orion has begun diving into Earth’s atmosphere.
The entry happened at a considerable speed, 40 thousand km/h (25,000 mph), about 32 times the speed of sound. It faced temperatures up to 2,800°C (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit), nearly half the temperature on the surface of the Sun. At this point, the “SKIP” took place to slow the spacecraft and keep it on target; Orion “bounced” off Earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft then made a second atmospheric entry to continue the final descent.
The spacecraft deployed a set of parachutes for four minutes to slow the descent further. With main parachutes, Orion slowed to 32 km/h (19.8 mph). The systems maintained the temperature in the Orion crew cabin at around 15 °C (60 Fahrenheit) based on data analyzed so far.
What about now?
While Orion was landing on the Pacific Ocean, KCS got a special delivery: the central core engine section for Artemis III! NASA is already deeply in the process of preparing the first human flight to the Moon since 1972 with Artemis II; in a post-landing interview James Free (Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development) revealed that the crew module, as well as the service module, are already at the Cape. Artemis II will bring a crew of four astronauts into orbit near the Moon no earlier than late 2024.
📍Now at Kennedy: The @NASA_SLS core stage engine section for #Artemis III has arrived. pic.twitter.com/W25Fo9PzdY— NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (@NASAKennedy) December 10, 2022
The successful return of the Orion capsule marks a major milestone for NASA’s space exploration program. The technology and engineering involved in safely transporting astronauts across space and back to Earth is remarkable. It’s exciting to see the progress being made towards eventually sending humans to Mars. Yet, it’s important to recognize the hard work and dedication of the scientists and engineers who make it all possible. Great job to everyone involved in this historic Splashdown!