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Artemis moonship returns to Earth with picture-perfect Pacific Ocean splashdown

NASA's Artemis I spacecraft returns to Earth
After 25-day flight, NASA's Artemis I Orion capsule splashes into Pacific Ocean 02:09

NASA's Artemis 1 moonship returned to Earth Sunday, slamming into the upper atmosphere at more than 24,000 mph and enduring a 5,000-degree re-entry inferno before settling to a picture perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean to close out a 25-day 1.4-million-mile test flight to the moon and back.

Descending under three huge parachutes, the unpiloted 9-ton Orion capsule gently hit the water 200 miles west of Baja California at 12:40 p.m. EST, 20 minutes after encountering the first traces of the discernible atmosphere 76 miles up.

"I'm overwhelmed. This is an extraordinary day," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "It's historic, because we are now going back into deep space with a new generation."

NASA's unpiloted Orion capsule descends to splashdown Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022 in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California to close out 25-day test flight around the moon and back. The mission is expected to help pave the way toward the first piloted Artemis moon mission in 2024. NASA

In an appropriate if unplanned coincidence, the splashdown came 50 years to the day after the final Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972 and just 10 hours after SpaceX launched a Japanese moon lander, the first sent up in a purely a commercial venture, from Cape Canaveral.

"From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA's journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion, back on Earth," said NASA commentator Rob Navias at the moment of Orion's splashdown, referring to the Apollo 11 and 17 landing sites.

Nelson also reflected on Apollo, saying President John F. Kennedy "stunned everybody with the Apollo generation, and said that we were going to achieve what we thought was impossible."

"It's a new day," Nelson said. "A new day has dawned. And the Artemis generation is taking us there."

The Orion capsule is towed toward the flooded well deck of the USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock ship. Once inside, the deck will be sealed, the water pumped out and the spacecraft will be left on a protective cradle for the trip back to Naval Base San Diego. NASA

A joint Navy-NASA recovery team was standing by within sight of the Orion splashdown to inspect the scorched capsule and, after a final round of tests, tow it into the flooded well deck of the USS Portland, an amphibious dock ship.

After the sea water is pumped out, Orion will settle onto a protective cradle for the voyage back to Naval Base San Diego and, eventually, a trip home to the Kennedy Space Center.

Re-entry and splashdown were the final major objectives of the Artemis 1 test flight, giving engineers confidence the spacecraft's 16.5-foot-wide Apollo-derived Avcoat heat shield and parachutes will work as designed when four astronauts return from the moon after the next Artemis flight in 2024.

Testing the heat shield was, in fact, the top priority of the Artemis 1 mission, "and it is our priority-one objective for a reason," mission manager Mike Sarafin said Friday.

"There is no arc jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic reentry with a heat shield of this size," he said. "And it is a brand new heat shield design, and it is a safety-critical piece of equipment. It is designed to protect the spacecraft and (future astronauts) ... so the heat shield needs to work."

And it apparently did just that, with no obvious signs of any major damage. Likewise, all three main parachutes deployed normally as did airbags needed to stabilize the capsule in light ocean swells.

A camera on one of the Orion capsule's four solar wings captured spectacular images of Earth as the spacecraft closed in Sunday for re-entry and splashdown. This shot came down less than one our before re-entry. NASA

A successful test flight was "what we need in order to prove this vehicle so that we can fly with a crew," said Deputy Administrator Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle commander. "And that's the next step, and I can't wait. ... A few minor glitches along the way, but (overall) it performed flawlessly."

Launched Nov. 16 on the maiden flight of NASA's huge new Space Launch System rocket, the unpiloted Orion capsule was boosted out of Earth orbit and on to the moon for an exhaustive series of tests, putting its propulsion, navigation, power and computer systems through their paces in the deep space environment.

The Orion flew through half of a "distant retrograde orbit" around the moon that carried it farther from Earth — 268,563 miles — than any previous human-rated spacecraft. Two critical firings of its main engine set up a low-altitude lunar flyby last Monday that, in turn, put the craft on course for splashdown Sunday.

NASA originally planned to bring the ship down west of San Diego, but a predicted cold front bringing higher winds and rougher seas prompted mission managers to move the landing site south by about 350 miles, to a point just south of Guadalupe Island some 200 miles west of Baja California.

After a final trajectory correction maneuver early Sunday, the Orion spacecraft plunged back into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet at 12:20 p.m.

The re-entry profile was designed to ensure that Orion skipped once across the top of the atmosphere like a flat stone skipping across calm water before making its final descent. As expected, Orion plunged from 400,000 feet to an altitude of about 200,000 feet in just two minutes, then climbed back up to about 295,000 feet before resuming its computer-guided fall to Earth.

Within a minute and a half of entry, atmospheric friction began generating temperatures across the heat shield reaching nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — half the temperature of the sun's visible surface — enveloping the spacecraft in an electrically charged plasma that blocked communications with flight controllers for about five minutes.

The Orion spacecraft followed an unusual "skip entry" trajectory during its return to Earth, skipping off the top of the discernible atmosphere like a stone across calm water before a second plunge to splashdown. NASA

After another two-and-a-half minute communications blackout during its second drop into the lower atmosphere, the spacecraft continued decelerating as it closed in on the landing site, slowing to around 650 mph, roughly the speed of sound, about 15 minutes after the entry began.

Finally, at an altitude of about 22,000 feet and a velocity of just under 300 mph, small drogue parachutes deployed, pulling off a protective cover along with three pilot chutes. Finally, in a welcome sight to the nearby recovery crew, the capsule's main parachutes unfurled at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, slowing Orion to a sedate 18 mph or so for splashdown.

Mission duration was 25 days 10 hours 52 minutes.

"It was an incredible mission. We accomplished all of our major mission objectives," said Michelle Zahner, an Orion mission planning engineer. "The vehicle performed every bit as well as we hoped and even better in a lot of ways.

"This is the farthest any human-rated spacecraft has ever gone, and that required a lot of complex analysis and mission planning. To see it all come together and have such a successful test mission was amazing."

While flight controllers ran into still-unexplained glitches with its power system, initial "funnies" with its star trackers and degraded performance from a phased array antenna, the Orion spacecraft and its European Space Agency-built service module worked well overall, achieving virtually all of their major objectives.

Cameras aboard the Orion capsule beamed back spectacular images, including this closeup of the surface of the moon. NASA
Throughout the Artremis 1 mission, cameras aboard the Orion capsule beamed back spectacular images of the moon and Earth, giving flight controllers - and the public - a ringside seat during the 25-day test flight. NASA

If all goes well, NASA plans to follow the Artemis 1 mission by sending four astronauts around the moon in the program's second flight — Artemis 2 — in 2024. The first moon-landing would follow in the 2025-26 timeframe when NASA says the first woman and the next man will set foot on the lunar surface near the south pole.

While the 2024 flight seems achievable based on the results of the Artemis 1 mission, the Artemis 3 moon landing faces a much more challenging schedule, requiring good performance during the Artemis 3 mission and successful development and testing of the lunar lander NASA is paying SpaceX $2.9 billion to develop.

The lander, a variant of the company's Starship rocket, has not yet flown to space. But it will require multiple robotic refueling flights in low-Earth orbit before heading to the moon to await rendezvous by astronauts launched aboard an Orion capsule.

SpaceX and NASA have provided few details about the development of the Starship moon lander and it's not yet known when it will be ready to safely carry astronauts to the moon.

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