This weekend NASA’s Orion spacecraft will return to Earth, following its 25-day mission around the Moon. The uncrewed spacecraft is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, December 11th.
Since its launch on November 16th, Orion has traveled through Earth’s atmosphere and out into space, making a close flyby of the Moon and heading into a distant orbit, reaching a distance of over 43,000 miles from the Moon at its furthest point. Orion traveled around the Moon and made a second close flyby on the return journey and is now on its way back to Earth.
The biggest challenge that awaits the spacecraft now is safely entering the Earth’s atmosphere and landing in the ocean.
“At present, we are on track to have a fully successful Mission with some bonus objectives that we’ve achieved along the way,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, in a press conference on Thursday. He went on to say the main objectives for the day of splashdown are to test Orion’s re-entry and to practice the retrieval of the spacecraft from the ocean.
To help land accurately in the splashdown location, Orion will perform something called a skip entry. This will be the first time a spacecraft designed to carry humans has attempted such a maneuver. It works by having the spacecraft dip into Earth’s upper atmosphere and pull back up before entering the atmosphere again. It will then be slowed by parachutes before splashing down. This enables the spacecraft to land in a precise zone in the Pacific Ocean.
“The skip entry will help Orion land closer to the coast of the United States, where recovery crews will be waiting to bring the spacecraft back to land,” explained Chris Madsen, Orion guidance, navigation and control subsystem manager, in a NASA post about the maneuver from last year. “When we fly crew in Orion beginning with Artemis II, landing accuracy will really help make sure we can retrieve the crew quickly and reduces the number of resources we will need to have stationed in the Pacific Ocean to assist in recovery.”
Orion will arrive back at our planet at a tremendous speed of 25,000 mph, and by moving through Earth’s atmosphere, it will slow to 325 mph. It will deploy its 11-parachute system beginning at an altitude of about 5 miles, which will slow it to less than 20 mph as it splashes down.
The return to Earth will be an important test for Orion’s heat shield, which must keep the capsule safe from the heat of re-entry, which can reach up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Testing the heat shield in real-world conditions is particularly important as there is no way to simulate this event in facilities here on Earth, Sarafin said, and it will be a vital piece of hardware to keep future astronauts safe when they travel in Orion for the Artemis II mission and beyond.
When will Artemis I return to Earth?
NASA’s coverage begins at 11AM ET on Sunday, December 11th, with splashdown scheduled for 12:39PM ET.