February 8, 2023

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

After orbiting the moon for the past three weeks, NASA’s Orion capsule landed under a parachute yesterday morning off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California near the island of Guadalupe, marking the end of the Artemis program’s first major lunar mission . Orion was then recovered by a salvage crew and sent to the Port of San Diego, where she was transported in the bay of the Navy ship USS Portland. With Artemis 1 in the books, NASA will scrutinize the capsule’s performance and ensure it is safe for future human voyages to the moon, including a much-anticipated lunar landing in 2026.

“This is a historic achievement because we are now going back into space with a new generation,” said NASA chief Bill Nelson after the Orion splashdown. “This is a crucial day. It’s one that marks a new technology, a whole new generation of astronauts, a vision for the future.”

During Sunday’s descent, the three parachutes were fully inflated, braking the spacecraft to slow it from 25,000 miles per hour to just 20 as it sped through the atmosphere. But now the Artemis team will examine all the capsule’s metrics in detail. “First, let’s look at: has the heat shield done its job of rejecting heat and providing the heat pulse so that the internal cabin pressure stays at a moderate mid-70 degrees for astronauts when they are there?” says Sarah D’Souza, the assistant systems manager at NASA Ames Research Center who helped develop Orion’s thermal protection system.

This ablative heat shield consists of thick, bonded blocks of an epoxy material called Avcoat, which burns off when the shield withstands searing temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, about half the temperature of the sun’s surface. They want to be sure, she says, that “we have a design that keeps people safe.”

Nelson also stressed human safety and habitability during a press conference after the blast. “This time we’re going back to the moon to learn to live, to work, to invent, to create, and then to go out into the cosmos to explore further,” he said. “The plan is to prepare to fly humans to Mars in the late 2030s, and then beyond.”

Orion was originally scheduled to land off the coast of San Diego, but the weather forecast there made that a no-go, and the flight director adjusted its trajectory. The team credits this flexibility to a maneuver the team dubbed “skip” reentry, in which Orion descended halfway through the atmosphere to an altitude of about 40 miles, then jumped up and forward like a pebble falling over a pond slides, and then atmosphere entered for good. This type of re-entry also helps slow down the spacecraft.

Re-entry brought Orion within 0.02 degrees of the team’s planned flight angle, and landing in the ocean was almost a direct hit, about 2 nautical miles from their target landing site. As the chutes descended, all five balloon-like pouches inflated, keeping Orion upright in the water. NASA and Navy officials from the recovery team — in helicopters and boats — then approached and prepared to recover the spacecraft and stow it in the hold of the USS Portland for the return trip to shore.