After orbiting the moon, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will land in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, putting the Artemis I mission on track. It’s too early to declare Artemis I a complete success — two of the mission’s top priorities come with splashdown — but the mission has already helped NASA prepare for its ultimate goal of returning humans to the moon and eventually sending people on Mars.
“The mission continues to go well and according to the planned mission profile,” Artemis Mission Manager Mike Sarafin told reporters on Thursday. “Currently on track to have a fully successful mission with some bonus goals we’ve achieved along the way.”
The Artemis I mission launched Nov. 16, sending the unmanned spacecraft Orion into orbit around the moon to test NASA’s deep space exploration systems. At its furthest point, Orion was a record 268,563 miles from Earth, surpassing the Apollo 13 mission distance set in 1970.
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The spacecraft is now on a trajectory to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land near Guadalupe Island, off Mexico’s Baja California, around 12:40 a.m. PT on December 11.
At that point, the Artemis I mission will achieve its primary goal: to demonstrate that Orion’s heat shield can withstand the high speed and high heat it will experience under lunar reentry conditions. When it returns, Orion will travel approximately 24,500 miles per hour. The spacecraft will experience temperatures half as hot as the sun outside the heat shield.
On Sunday, NASA will also accomplish its mission priority #3: recover Orion after splashdown. NASA’s Ground Exploration Systems Recovery Team is working with the United States Navy to recover the spacecraft. The recovery team departed San Diego for the dump site Nov. 7 and is currently at sea. They plan to arrive at the landing site 24 hours prior to splashdown.
NASA originally planned to land off San Diego, California. Factors that went into landing site selection, Sarafin said, included spacecraft design limitations; security considerations of recovery operations; and test objectives associated with imagery, certain airdrops, and the parachute deployment sequence.
However, a cold front moving through the Southern California region created less than ideal conditions at the initial landing site. On Sunday, this area is expected to experience light precipitation, along with wind and choppy waves. Therefore, NASA moved the targeted landing site south by 300 nautical miles.
NASA uses a “jump entry” maneuver to bring Orion back to Earth – a new technique that allows NASA to land the spacecraft off the west coast of North America. Using this technique, astronauts aboard future Artemis missions would experience approximately 4G at peak acceleration, similar to what astronauts experience returning from low Earth orbit.
Once Orion splashes down, it will remain in the water for approximately two hours while NASA performs various tests, such as determining the amount of heat generated on the capsule and its impact on the interior of the capsule. Meanwhile, the recovery team will recover the dropped gear before it sinks, and perform its own assortment of tests on the Orion, before pulling it aboard a ship.
While splashdown will take care of the first and third priorities of the Artemis I mission, that leaves objective #2: to demonstrate the operations and flight modes of the spacecraft. This process began during the flight itself, when NASA teams collected an immense amount of data related to Orion’s communications, propulsion and navigation systems.
Already, NASA has uploaded more than 140 GB of engineering and imagery data being analyzed.
“We’ve seen very good system performance,” Jim Geffre, NASA’s Orion vehicle integration manager, said in a separate interview with ZDNET.
For example, he said, the spacecraft’s four large solar arrays generated about 1.7 kilowatts more than expected. “It’s the kind of thing that allows for greater operational flexibility for future missions.”
Additionally, the Orion’s thermal systems use less power overall than expected. And when it comes to the propulsion system — which is key to getting Orion to the moon and back safely — “every burn has been perfect,” Geffre said.
Once Orion is safely back on earth, NASA will be able to recover more data recorded inside the spacecraft. Then, some components, such as some electronic boxes, will be refurbished for the Artemis II mission.
“We have a gradual plan to reuse the vehicle more and more,” Geffre told ZDNET. “Right now with Artemis I we have a handful of components, about 10 or so, we’re going to pull the vehicle out and fly for Artemis II. Then we’ll start using more and more…Our goal is to get to maximum reusability, which includes almost all systems.”
The Artemis II mission, which NASA aims to launch in 2024, will send four astronauts on a flight around the moon.
While NASA’s preparations for Artemis II are already well advanced and “we are completing this mission,” Sarafin said, “we are not letting our guard down. We have tough things ahead of us.”
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