NASA’s Orion space capsule has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after completing a 1.4 million mile voyage to the moon and back that lasted 25 days.
Navy divers waited nearby to recover the spaceship, which splashed down at around 5.40 GMT with a parachute-assisted landing off the coast of Baja California.
The capsule blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 16 on Nasa’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as part of the Artemis-1 mission, ushering in a new era of lunar exploration that could see humans return to the moon.
Nine days later, it made history by travelling 270,000 miles beyond the Earth – the furthest any spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone.
NASA’s unmanned Orion spaceship approaching Earth as it returned from its Moon mission
Orion successfully separated from its service module at around 5pm GMT today in preparation for its return. It then entered its entry phase, travelling back down to Earth at just under 25,000 miles per hour.
The splashdown was the final hurdle Orion faced in what had otherwise been a successful demonstration mission.
NASA described the return as its ‘priority one’ for the mission because engineers want to see proof that the spacecraft can survive the heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The plan is for the craft to take humans around the moon for its next mission, expected in 2024.
There might not have been any humans on this mission, but returning from the long-haul journey are woolly (toy) spacefarers Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep, alongside three mannequin astronauts – dubbed Commander Moonikin Campos, Helga and Zohar.
David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA), described Shaun’s mission as ‘a small step for a human, but a giant leap for lambkind’.
Orion splashed down at around 5.40 GMT with a parachute-assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California
Navy divers waited nearby to recover the spaceship and will now pull the capsule – and its passengers – on board
Orion and its toy passengers braved a bumpy ride back as the spacecraft hurtled towards Earth at about 25,000mph, with outside temperatures approaching 3,000C.
To withstand the searing temperatures and slow down from such a speed, the US space agency used a new re-entry technique that is different to how the Apollo moon missions returned to Earth.
Known as a ‘skip entry’, it saw Orion bounce off the Earth’s upper atmosphere like a stone skipping across water and has several key benefits, including bleeding off speed and reducing the G-Force that astronauts in the future will experience.
The concept of a skip entry was known during the 1960s and 70s but wasn’t used because Apollo lacked the necessary navigational technology, computing power, and accuracy.
Instead, astronauts returning from the moon made direct entries in their capsules, meaning they had a vast range of possible places they could splash down and ended up in remote parts of Earth’s oceans.
As Orion re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, its speed slowed down to around 325mph, before it deployed its 11 parachutes to slow down further to a splashdown speed of 20mph or less.
Recovery teams on a ship waiting off the coast will now pull the capsule – and its passengers – on board.
While the Artemis-1 mission has been all about testing systems, the Artemis II flight test will be NASA’s first mission with astronauts who will fly around the moon.
As Orion re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, its speed slowed down to around 325mph, before it deployed its 11 parachutes to slow down further to a splashdown speed of 20mph or less
Orion successfully separated from its service module at around 5pm GMT in preparation for its return
If successful, Artemis II will pave the way to land the first woman and next man on the moon as part of Artemis III.
The last manned mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in December 1972.
The Artemis missions are part of Nasa’s long-term plans to build a space station – called Lunar Gateway – where astronauts will be able to live and work.
ARTEMIS I: KEY FACTS
Launch date: November 16, 2022
Mission duration: 25 days, 10 hours, 53 minutes
Total distance travelled: 1.4 miIlion miles
Re-entry speed: 24,500 mph (Mach 32)
Type: Skip entry
Heat it will face: 5,000°F (2,760°C)
Splashdown: December 11, 2022
The building of the Lunar Gateway will include contributions from scientists and engineers in the UK, including from Thales Alenia Space UK and Imperial College London, with backing from the UK Space Agency.
Dr Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert at Nottingham Trent University, said the splashdown demonstrated ‘Orion’s capability to take humans to the Moon on its next stage’.
He said: ‘This was the nail-biting end of an amazing and important journey for NASA’s Orion space craft. The unmanned capsule entered our atmosphere 32 times faster than the speed of sound causing temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees. This was a test which illustrated Artemis’ and Orion’s capability to take humans to the Moon on its next stage.
‘Equally impressive has been the stunning skipping-stone re-entry that ensured a precise landing zone off Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, an area for splash-down much smaller than during the Apollo missions.
‘This method also guarantees a more comfortable and safer deceleration for a future crew, experiencing forces that are only four times stronger than the gravitational forces we experience every day on Earth.
‘The four times larger force is comparable to what one might experience for a shorter time on roller coasters and significantly less than the seven times stronger forces during Apollo missions.
‘NASA is now inspecting the capsule, heatshield and collecting any equipment jettisoned during landing to confirm their theoretical models and ensure everything will run as smoothly as possible for their next crewed mission of 2024. This has been a textbook re-entry and signals the next stage to the crewed Artemis stage.’