NASA’s Orion capsule will head out into the Pacific Ocean after concluding a three-week test flight that included a close pass to the Moon and a journey deeper into space than any previous habitable spacecraft.
The capsule is expected to touch down at 17:39 GMT on Sunday (9:39 am local time) off the Mexican island of Guadalupe.
The launch of Orion last month, with a simulated crew of three mannequins, kicked off NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to take people back to the Moon and prepare for a later trip, one day, to Mars.
So far, the Orion flight has gone very well, according to NASA.
In late November, the capsule reached its furthest point in space, venturing 432,210 km (268,563 miles) from Earth in the middle of its 25-day mission. That’s nearly 20,000 miles (32,187 km) beyond the record distance set by the Apollo 13 crew in 1970, which aborted its moon landing and returned to Earth after near-catastrophic mechanical failure.
On Monday, Orion sailed within 80 miles (130 km) of the lunar surface, achieving the closest approach to the Moon for a spacecraft built to carry humans since Apollo 17 flew half a century ago.
But, it’s only in the final minutes of Orion’s voyage on Sunday that the real challenge arrives: seeing if the capsule’s heat shield, the largest ever built, really holds up.
The spacecraft, which is expected to launch into Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40,000 km/h (25,000 mph), will have to endure a temperature of 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,072 degrees Fahrenheit), about half that the surface of the sun.
The first test of the capsule was carried out in 2014, but then the capsule remained in Earth orbit, so it returned to the atmosphere at a slower speed of approximately 32,187 km/h.
Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said Orion’s heat shield was “a safety-critical piece of equipment.”
“It is designed to protect the spacecraft and the passengers, the astronauts on board. So the heat shield must work,” he said.
NASA has sent a US Navy ship, the USS Portland, as well as helicopters and inflatable boats to recover the Orion capsule.
Once in the water, NASA will let Orion float for two hours, much longer than if the astronauts were inside, to collect data that is crucial for future missions.
“We’ll see how the heat is absorbed back into the crew module and how that affects the interior temperature,” said Jim Geffre, NASA’s Orion vehicle integration manager.
Other information that will be collected includes the condition of the craft after its flight, data from monitors that measure acceleration and vibration, and the performance of a special vest attached to a dummy in the capsule to test how to protect people from the radiation as they fly through space. .
If the mission is successful, a crewed Artemis II flight around the Moon and back could arrive as early as 2024, but not yet land on it.
NASA is expected to name the selected astronauts for this trip soon.
Artemis III, scheduled for 2025, will see a spacecraft land for the first time on the Moon’s south pole, which features water in the form of ice.
Only 12 people, all of them white men, have walked on the Moon. They did this during the Apollo missions, the last of which was in 1972.
Artemis is scheduled to send a woman and a person of color to the Moon for the first time.
NASA’s goal is to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon through a base on its surface and a space station circling it.
Getting people to learn to live on the Moon should help engineers develop technologies for a year-long trip to Mars, perhaps in the late 2030s.
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