TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — NASA’s test mission to bring humans back to the moon wrapped up this weekend.
The Orion spacecraft, which will eventually ferry astronauts to the moon and back, was scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Guadalupe Island at 12:39 p.m. ET Sunday. It landed shortly after its projected time at 12:40 EDT.
The uncrewed spacecraft has sent back incredible images of the moon and the Earth on its lunar flyby. The mission will be 25 and a half days in total when it lands. According to NASA, the mission has gone smoothly so far.
“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 I mission manager, during a briefing Thursday evening.
The most important objective left of the mission will be testing the heat shield and retrieving the capsule after splashdown.
The entire re-entry process will take about 20 minutes. It begins with the service module separating from the spacecraft capsule. The capsule will flip around exposing the heat shield to the direction of travel.
Traveling at 25,000 mph, the capsule will quickly encounter friction from the Earth’s atmosphere. The 16-foot wide heat shield will be tested as it rapidly heats up. It will need to withstand temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit to keep the atmosphere inside the capsule at human-safe temperatures.
The capsule will perform a brand new return-to-Earth method called a skip entry. This is where the capsule will temporarily enter the Earth’s upper atmosphere, skip back into space, and return to Earth’s surface.
This method was not achievable during the Apollo era but is very useful. According to NASA, it will allow the teams to choose a precise and safe landing location, no matter where and when the capsule returns from the moon.
As the skip entry is performed, the capsule will slow from Mach 32 to 325 mph just due to the friction from Earth’s atmosphere. At an elevation of about five miles above the surface, the first of four sets of parachutes will be deployed. The sequence of large parachutes will slow the spacecraft to just 17 mph upon splashdown.
With help from the US Navy, after splashdown, teams will recover the capsule in a reasonable amount of time, as if astronauts were inside. NASA is expected to live stream the entire event.