NASA’s Orion capsule splashed down back to Earth on Sunday, December 11, at 9:40 AM PST (11:10 PM IST). The Orion’s landing in the Pacific Ocean marked the end of the inaugural Artemis 1 lunar mission exactly 50 years after Apollo’s final moon landing.
NASA called it a perfectly conducted “textbook entry.”
“Watching it from the deck as an observer, we saw those three full main parachutes pop out,” said NASA spokesperson Derrol Nail, speaking from the USS Portland several miles from the splashdown site. “It was a beautiful sight, probably just about several thousand feet in the sky, and we watched that slow descent as the Orion crew module made its way down to the Pacific Ocean.”
As per NASA’s press release, the “gumdrop-shaped Orion capsule, carrying a simulated crew of three mannequins wired with sensors”, landed in the Pacific Ocean, off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. It also performed a new landing technique called ‘skip entry’, designed to help the spacecraft accurately splash down at the landing site. Orion entered the Earth’s upper atmosphere and used the atmosphere and its lift to “skip” back outside the atmosphere only to re-enter once again.
Why is the Artemis 1 mission important, and how is it different from NASA’s earlier lunar missions? What are the risks the capsule faced as it splashed down? We explain.
In its 35-day mission, the Orion passed about 127 km above the moon in a fly-by. Orion entered Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of over 40,000 km per hour – more than 30 times the speed of sound – for a “fiery, 20-minute plunge to the ocean”, as described by Reuters.
Artemis 1 was essentially an experimental mission, to check if the capsule can be trusted to ferry humans to the moon and back in future missions. Thus, safe re-entry was critical to the success of the whole initiative.
As it hurtled towards Earth, Orion experienced such friction and pressure that its forward-facing surface could have generated temperatures likely to reach around 3,000C, as reported by the BBC. “It’s essentially like throwing a football 300 yards and hitting a penny,” Eric Coffman, Orion propulsion senior manager at Lockheed Martin Corp, which built Orion under contract with NASA, told Reuters.
Participants in post-splashdown news conference:
Bill Nelson, NASA administrator
Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration System Development Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters
Vanessa Wyche, director, Johnson
Janet Petro, director, Kennedy
Mike Sarafin, mission manager, NASA Headquarters
Howard Hu, Orion Program manager, Johnson
Emily Nelson, chief flight director, Johnson
Melissa Jones, recovery director, Kennedy
The next phase of the Artemis program will send the first crewed capsule around the moon and back, without landing on the moon, in 2024. NASA astronaut Shannon Walker on Sunday estimated that NASA will announce the crew for this phase sometime in the next six months.
NASA then aims to use the Orion capsule and a SpaceX human landing system to land astronauts on the moon for phase three of the program by 2025. The contract with Elon Musk’s company is valued at nearly $2.9 billion.
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