Orion spacecraft back on Earth

After spending just over 25 days in space and traveling around the Moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft landed in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, marking the end of the Artemis 1 test mission, the purpose of which was to preparing for the return of humans to the Moon in the coming years. The landing took place off the Mexican island of Guadalupe at 5:40 p.m. GMT (9:40 a.m. local time).

The capsule, which did not have an astronaut on board for this test flight, entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40,000 km/h, and had to endure infernal heat of 2,800°C, i.e. half the temperature of the Sun’s surface.

Full-scale test for the capsule’s heat shield

The main objective of the mission was to test the capsule’s heat shield, the largest ever built (5 m in diameter), under these conditions. The spacecraft was first slowed down in its vertiginous descent by the atmosphere, then by a series of no less than eleven parachutes, until it reached a speed of around 30 km/h when it hit the water. A US Navy ship, the USS Portland, had been pre-positioned for recovery operations, which NASA has been training for years. Helicopters and inflatable boats were also deployed.

Orion must now be left in the water for two hours, much longer than if astronauts were on board, in order to collect data – in particular on the heat induced inside the capsule. Then divers will attach cables to it in order to tow it to the interior of the ship, the rear of which will be partly submerged. The water will then be pumped, allowing the capsule to be slowly deposited on a support provided for this purpose.

Operations are expected to take four to six hours from the time of landing. The USS Portland will then take the road to San Diego, on the American west coast, where the capsule will be landed.

A crucial success for NASA

The success of this mission was crucial for NASA, which has invested tens of billions of dollars in the American return to the moon program, Artemis. After bringing humans back to the lunar surface, his goal is to prepare for a future trip to Mars. In 2014, a first test of the capsule had been carried out, but it had not then left Earth orbit, and had therefore entered the atmosphere more slowly (about 32,000 km / h).

In total, the spacecraft has this time traveled more than 2.2 million kilometers in space since its takeoff on November 16 during the first flight of NASA’s new mega-rocket, SLS. Orion flew past the Moon just some 130 kilometers from its surface, and ventured over 430,000 km from our planet, farther than any previously habitable spacecraft.

The next Artemis 2 and 3 missions already scheduled

Recovering the capsule will allow the collection of a lot of decisive data for the following missions. First by detailing the state of the ship after its trip, but also by analyzing the recordings of sensors of the accelerations and vibrations undergone on board, or the performance of an anti-radiation jacket. Some elements of the ship must also be reused for the Artemis 2 capsule, which is already well advanced. This second mission, scheduled for 2024, will take a crew to the Moon, still without landing there. NASA should announce the names of the chosen astronauts very soon.

Artemis 3, officially scheduled for 2025, will land for the first time on the south pole of the Moon, where there is water in the form of ice. Only 12 men have set foot on the lunar surface thanks to the Apollo missions — for the last time in 1972, 50 years ago.

The Artemis program must this time send the first woman and the first person of color there. NASA’s goal is to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon, with a base on its surface and a space station orbiting it. Learning to live on the Moon should test all the technologies needed for a multi-year journey to Mars – possibly in the late 2030s.

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