On Sunday, NASA’s Orion spacecraft completed the first mission of the US agency’s new Artemis lunar programme by crashing through Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, 50 years to the day after Apollo’s last moon landing.
The gumdrop-shaped Orion capsule made an exciting homecoming at 9:40 a.m. PST (1740 GMT) near Mexico’s Baja California peninsula before NASA deploys its first crew of Artemis humans to orbit the moon in the upcoming years.
“Here was a demanding mission, and this is what mission success looks like,” NASA’s Mike Sarafin, the Artemis I mission manager, told reporters after splashdown. His crew didn’t immediately notice any issues with Orion’s return from orbit, he continued.
Before loading Orion onto a US Navy ship for a voyage to San Diego, California, a US military aircraft and a fleet of fast boats investigated the capsule after its splashdown for nearly five hours.
The splashdown occurred less than a week after the spacecraft did a fly-by of the moon at a distance of around 79 miles, approximately two weeks after it had travelled nearly 270,000 miles (434,500 km) from Earth (127 km).
The spacecraft separated from its service module in orbit about 30 minutes before splashing down, revealing a heatshield that experienced peak temperatures of roughly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) during its blazing-fast descent. The 20-minute dive into Earth’s atmosphere was quite hot.
Atmospheric friction caused the capsule’s speed to drop from 24,500 mph (39,400 kph) to 325 mph before two sets of parachutes assisted in the capsule’s descent to the anticipated 20 mph upon splashdown. The capsule’s descent pace was “outstanding,” according to Navias.