NASA’s Orion capsule successfully returns to Earth

NASA's Orion capsule successfully returns to Earth

We’re one step closer to the next moon walk.

NASA’s Orion capsule returned to Earth Sunday afternoon, ending its 25-day test flight around the moon — 50 years to the day of the Apollo program’s last moon landing.

The capsule — with no crew aboard — made an ocean splashdown at 12:40 p.m. EST off Mexico’s Baja California, trekking some 239,000 miles between the moon and Earth.

The Orion capsule’s 25,000 mph re-entry coincides with the 50th anniversary of the last lunar landing by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt on Dec. 11, 1972.

The Artemis 1 mission is the first to visit the moon ever since.

After years of setbacks, the rocket blasted off Nov. 16 from Kennedy Space Center as part of NASA’s Space Launch System — and is the biggest and most powerful NASA rocket since the Saturn V of the Apollo era.

Orion slashdown.
The capsule splashing down off Mexico’s Baja California.
The Orion spacecraft reached its maximum distance from Earth.
The Orion spacecraft at its maximum distance from Earth on flight day 13.
NASA/AFP via Getty Images
NASA's unmanned Orion spaceship approaches Earth as it returns from its Moon mission.
NASA’s unmanned Orion spaceship approaches Earth as it returns from its moon mission.

The capsule took a 20-minute plunge at 24,500 mph into Earth’s atmosphere and shedded its service module, a housing for its main rocket system contributed by the Europeon’s an Space Agency.

Testing whether Orion’s newly designed heat shield withstands atmospheric friction upon re-entry — which causes temperatures to raise to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — was the top priority of the Artemis I mission, according to mission manager Mike Sarafin.

“It is our priority-one objective,” Sarafin said at a briefing last week. “There is no arc-jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic re-entry with a heat shield of this size.”

The new Artemis program was named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

With Orion’s safe landing, NASA officials will be able to use data from the mission to prepare for the Artemis II mission —which will put astronauts on the spacecraft for another trip around the moon.

An Artemis II flight could take off as early as 2024, with a lunar landing in either 2025 or 2026 — marking the first moon walk since 1972.

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