NASA’s Orion Moon capsule is back. What happens next?

After going around the moon for the past three weeks, NASA’s Orion capsule fell under parachute yesterday morning off Mexico’s Baja California near Guadalupe Island, marking the end of the Artemis program’s first major lunar mission. Orion was then recovered by a recovery team and sent to the port of San Diego, transported in the well of the Navy ship USS Portland. With Artemis 1 on the books, NASA will review the capsule’s performance, ensuring it’s safe for future crewed trips to the Moon, including a much-anticipated lunar landing in 2026.

“This is a historic achievement because we are now returning to deep space with a new generation,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said after the Orion crash. “It’s a defining day. It’s one that marks a new technology, a whole new breed of astronauts, a vision for the future.

During Sunday’s descent, all three parachutes fully inflated, braking the spacecraft to slow it from 25,000 miles per hour to just 20 as it hurtled through the atmosphere. But now the Artemis team will study all the metrics of the capsule in detail. “We will first examine: Did the heat shield do its job of rejecting heat and taking care of the heat impulse so that the internal cabin pressure remains at a moderate mid 70 degrees for the astronauts when they are there?” says Sarah D’Souza, deputy systems manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center, who helped develop Orion’s thermal protection system.

This ablative heat shield is made up of thick connected blocks of an epoxy resin material called Avcoat, which burns off when the shield withstands scorching temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, about half the temperature of the surface of the sun. . They want to be sure, she says, that “we have a design that will keep humans safe.”

Nelson also highlighted human safety and habitability during a press conference after the splash. “This time we are going back to the moon to learn how to live, to work, to invent, to create, in order to continue in the cosmos to explore more,” he said. “The plan is to prepare to go with humans to Mars in the late 2030s and then even further.”

Orion was originally scheduled to crash off San Diego, but the weather forecast forbade it there and the flight director adjusted its course. This flexibility comes through a maneuver the team attempted called a “jump” re-entry, in which Orion descended halfway through the atmosphere at an altitude of about 40 miles, then jumped up and down. forward like a pebble brushing against a pond, then entered the mood for good. This type of re-entry also helps slow down the spacecraft.

The re-entry brought Orion within 0.02 degrees of the team’s intended flight angle, and the ocean splash was a close target, about 2 nautical miles from its target landing site. Once the falls descended, the five balloon-like bags inflated, keeping Orion upright in the water. NASA and Navy officials from the recovery team – in helicopters and boats – then made their approach, preparing to recover the spacecraft and stow it in the belly of the USS. Portland for the return to shore.

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