Lunar ship Artemis returns to Earth on final leg of test flight

Passing within 81 miles of the moon, NASA’s unmanned Orion capsule ignited its main engine on Monday during a gravity-assisted lunar flyby that put the ship on track for a return to Earth on Sunday to wrap up the Artemis 1 test flight.

The 3-minute, 27-second burn, beginning at 11:43:23 a.m. EST, took place on the far side of the moon as the spacecraft was out of contact with Johnson Space Center flight controllers at Houston.

But the Orbital Maneuvering System engine performed flawlessly, firing 6,000 pounds of thrust in time to change the capsule’s speed by 655 mph. The burn caused a precisely targeted reentry and splash in the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego at 12:40 p.m. EST Sunday.

Moments after reconnecting with flight controllers after a pass behind the moon, the Orion spacecraft sent back live television images of the moon and Earth as the spacecraft headed home (light from objective removed for clarity). / Credit: NASA TV/CBS News

Plunging into the atmosphere perceptibly at around 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield will have to withstand temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees as it dives, leaps slightly and then re-enters permanently, slowing its parachutes down to just 117 mph. main units deploy two and a half minutes before landing.

With a joint NASA and Navy recovery team, the Orion will hit the water at a relatively calm speed of 20 mph to cap off a 25-day journey spanning 1.4 million miles from launch November 16 from Kennedy Space Center atop the first Super Heavy Rocket of NASA’s Space Launch System.

The recovery team, based on a Navy amphibious transport vessel, will stand ready to transport the capsule to an enclosed “well deck” for the return trip to shore where it will undergo detailed post-flight inspections to check the performance of its heat shield and other systems.

The Artemis 1 mission is the first in a series of NASA flights to return astronauts to the moon for long-term exploration and technology development intended to pave the way for eventual piloted flights to Mars.

The program looks to the future landings near the south pole of the moon where ice deposits can be found in permanently shadowed craters, potentially providing a source of air, water, and rocket fuel for future exploration.

The Artemis 1 mission was designed as an unpiloted first test flight of the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System rocket that propelled the spacecraft on a trajectory to the moon. Despite repeated hydrogen leaks and other issues that triggered multiple delays, the giant rocket managed a near-perfect ascent into space.

Return to the moon after the launch of the rocket powered by the Orion flyby.  / Credit: NASA TV

Return to the moon after the launch of the rocket powered by the Orion flyby. / Credit: NASA TV

The Orion capsule and its service module provided by the European Space Agency also performed well. Although the main objective of the mission – to test the heat shield at lunar re-entry temperatures – has yet to be achieved, no other major issues have prevented or significantly delayed subsequent flights.

The spacecraft made a first lunar flyby on November 21, followed by another OMS engine that fired four days later to place the craft in a “distant retrograde orbit” that carried Orion farther from Earth – 268 563 miles – than any previous spacecraft.

On the DRO trajectory, flight controllers put Orion and its service module through its paces, testing the vehicle’s navigation, propulsion, thermal control and computer systems in the deep space environment to verify that they work as expected.

Another ignition of the OMS engine last Thursday knocked Orion out of lunar orbit, sending the craft back to the moon for Monday’s powered flyby. In any case, the OMS engine, which first flew into space nearly four decades ago on a shuttle flight in 1984, performed exactly as expected.

NASA plans to follow the Artemis 1 mission by launching four yet-to-be-named astronauts on a shakedown flight around the moon in 2024, using GPS receivers, phased array antennas and an inertial measurement unit taken from the Artemis. 1 Orion.

The Artemis 2 mission, in turn, will set the stage for the first woman and next man to land near the lunar south pole sometime in 2025-26.

But that flight will depend on a new SpaceX lander, a variant of the company’s spacecraft that hasn’t flown yet, and NASA has provided few details on the development or testing schedule for that spacecraft.

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