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Splashdown: Orion returns to Earth to complete Artemis I mission

Sunday happened to be the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17′s touchdown on Dec. 11, 1972.

NASA's Orion space capsule heads for splashdown after Artemis I flight around moon
NASA's Orion Capsule splashes down Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, after a successful Artemis I Moon Mission, seen from aboard the U.S.S. Portland in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. A 26-day mission took the Orion spacecraft to the moon and back, which completed a historic test flight that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 17 on the moon, the last time that NASA astronauts walked there.
Mario Tama / Pool via Reuters
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ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA chased down the Orion spacecraft after its record-breaking reentry into Earth’s atmosphere Sunday to conclude the Artemis I mission that lifted off from Kennedy Space Center more than three weeks ago.

“And there it is, high over the Pacific, America’s new ticket to ride to the moon and beyond now in view,” said Rob Navias with NASA communications as the first images of the capsule emerged descending under three unfurled main parachutes 1,000 feet above the water’s surface.

It made contact at 12:40 and 30 seconds a.m. CST after 25 days, 10 hours and 54 minutes and 50 seconds, unofficially.

“Splashdown. From Tranquility Base to Taurus–Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close, Orion, back on Earth,” Navias said referencing the landing sites of Apollo 13 and Apollo 17, the first and last human landings on the moon. Sunday happened to be the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17′s touchdown on Dec. 11, 1972.

Recovery teams led by KSC’s Exploration Ground Systems were on hand to welcome back the uncrewed Orion capsule after landing near Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California south of San Diego. Teams will prep the capsule to be loaded onto the deck of the U.S.S. Portland for a trip back to San Diego. The ship was within 6 miles of the capsule and early reports stated the capsule showed no damage.

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NASA's Orion space capsule heads for splashdown after Artemis I flight around moon
Navy sailors launch a small boat as part of the recovery operation for the Orion capsule off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. The Orion capsule returned back to earth after a 26-day mission orbiting the moon and back in a recovery operation involving the US Navy and NASA.
Caroline Brehman / Pool via Reuters

“The target for Orion is growing larger in the field of view moment by moment,” Navias said as NASA TV began airing the return Sunday morning. “It is homecoming day.”

The return velocity saw Orion hit the atmosphere at a reported 24,464 mph, which is faster than any previous human-rated spacecraft.

The primary goal of the uncrewed Artemis I mission is to ensure Orion’s heat shied can withstand the nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit temperature generated by reentry and open the door for NASA to proceed with Artemis II, which aims to send four astronauts on an orbital moon mission no earlier than May 2024. That would then be followed by Artemis III no earlier than 2025, which would return humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

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Orion performed its sixth and final return trajectory correction burn Sunday morning to ensure it’s headed to the correct landing site. Orion, at about 3,200 miles altitude, separated from its service module that has been providing propulsion during its trip around the moon and back.

Orion then began to carve its way through the atmosphere at about 400,000 feet altitude and 3,659 miles from the target landing site making it away across the South Pacific Ocean.

“Orion will dip into the Earth’s atmosphere and begin what basically is a hellish entry where temperatures around the spacecraft will raise to about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” Navias said. “That’s half as hot as the outer surface of the sun.”

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