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The Artemis I mission – a 25.5-day uncrewed test flight around the moon intended to pave the way for future astronaut missions – came to a memorable end as NASA’s Orion spacecraft managed to splash the ocean on Sunday.
The spacecraft has completed the final part of its journey, closing in on the thick inner layer of Earth’s atmosphere after traveling 239,000 miles (385,000 kilometers) between the Moon and Earth. It crashed at 12:40 p.m. ET Sunday in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja California.
This last step was one of the most important and dangerous steps of the mission.
But after splashing out, Rob Navias, the NASA commentator who ran Sunday’s show, called the re-entry process “manual”.
“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday. “It’s an amazing day.”
The capsule is now floating in the Pacific Ocean, where it will remain until nearly 3 p.m. ET as NASA collects additional data and conducts tests. This process, like the rest of the mission, is to ensure that the Orion spacecraft is ready to fly astronauts.
“We are testing all the heat that came and was generated on the capsule. We want to make sure we characterize how it’s going to affect the interior of the capsule,” NASA flight director Judd Frieling told reporters last week.
A fleet of recovery vehicles – including boats, a helicopter and a US Navy ship called USS Portland – wait nearby.
The spacecraft was traveling around 32 times the speed of sound (24,850 miles per hour or nearly 40,000 kilometers per hour) when it hit the air – so fast that the compression waves caused the exterior of the vehicle to heat up at around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
“The next big test is the heat shield,” Nelson told CNN in a Thursday phone interview, referring to the barrier designed to protect the Orion capsule from the excruciating physics of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The extreme heat also caused air molecules to ionize, creating a buildup of plasma that caused a 5.5-minute communications blackout, according to Artemis I flight director Judd Frieling.
INTERACTIVE: trace the path of Artemis that I will take around the moon and vice versa
As the capsule reached approximately 200,000 feet (61,000 meters) above the Earth’s surface, it performed a roll maneuver that briefly sent the capsule flying upwards, much like skipping a boulder on the surface. of a lake.
There are several reasons to use the jump maneuver.
“The jump entry gives us a cohesive landing site that supports astronaut safety because it allows teams on the ground to coordinate recovery efforts better and faster,” said Joe Bomba, aerothermal manager at ‘Orion aerosciences at Lockheed Martin, in a press release. Lockheed is NASA’s prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft.
“By dividing the heat and force of reentry into two events, the entry jump also provides benefits such as reducing the g-forces that astronauts are subjected to,” according to Lockheed, referring to the crushing forces experienced by humans during spaceflight.
Another communication blackout lasting approximately three minutes followed the jump maneuver.
As it began its final descent, the capsule slowed dramatically, losing thousands of miles per hour until its parachutes deployed. At the time it crashed, Orion was traveling about 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour).
Although there were no astronauts on this test mission – just a few dummies equipped to collect data and a Snoopy doll – Nelson, the NASA chief, stressed the importance of demonstrating that the capsule can safely return.
The space agency’s plans are to turn the Artemis lunar missions into a program that will send astronauts to Mars, a journey that will have a much faster and bolder re-entry process.
Orion traveled approximately 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers) during this mission on a trajectory that swung into distant lunar orbit, carrying the capsule farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans. never travelled.
A secondary objective of this mission was for Orion’s service module, a cylindrical attachment to the bottom of the spacecraft, to deploy 10 small satellites. But at least four of those satellites failed after being dropped into orbit, including a miniature moon lander developed in Japan and one of NASA’s own payloads that was to be one of the first small satellites to explore space. interplanetary.
During its journey, the spacecraft captured stunning images of Earth and, during two close flybys, images of the lunar surface and a fascinating “Earth elevation”.
Nelson said if he had to give the Artemis I mission a letter grade so far, it would be an A.
“Not an A-plus, just because we expect things to go wrong. And the good news is when they go wrong, NASA knows how to fix them,” Nelson said. But “if I’m a teacher, I’d give her an A-plus.
Building on the success of the Artemis I mission, NASA will now delve into the data collected on that flight and seek to select a crew for the Artemis II mission, which could lift off in 2024.
Artemis II will aim to send astronauts on a similar trajectory to Artemis I, flying around the moon but not landing on its surface.
The Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for launch in 2025, should to put boots back on the moon, and NASA officials said it would include the first woman and first person of color to take such a step.