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Friday, May 17, 2024

The Orion Moon Capsule Is Back. What Happens Next?

After circling the moon for the past three weeks, NASA’s Orion capsule splashed down under parachute yesterday morning off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California near Guadalupe Island, marking an end to the Artemis program’s first major lunar mission. Orion was then scooped up by a recovery crew and sent to port in San Diego, carried in the well of the Navy ship USS Portland. With Artemis 1 in the books, NASA will scrutinize the capsule’s performance, making sure it is safe for future crewed trips to the moon, including a much-anticipated lunar landing in 2026.

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

During Sunday’s descent, the three parachutes fully inflated, putting the brakes on the spacecraft to slow it from 25,000 miles per hour to just 20 as it hurtled through the atmosphere. But now the Artemis team will be studying all the capsule’s metrics in detail. “First we’ll be looking at: Did the heat shield do its job in rejecting heat and taking care of the heat pulse such that the internal cabin pressure stays at a moderate mid-70 degrees for astronauts when they’re in there?” says Sarah D’Souza, the deputy systems manager at the NASA Ames Research Center who helped develop Orion’s thermal protection system. 

That ablative heat shield is made up of thick connected blocks of an epoxy resin material called Avcoat, which burns off as the shield endures scorching temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, about half the temperature of the surface of the sun. They want to be sure, she says, that “we’ve got a design that will keep humans safe.”

Nelson, too, stressed human safety and habitability during a post-splashdown press conference. “This time we go back to the moon to learn to live, to work, to invent, to create, in order to go on out into the cosmos to further explore,” he said. “The plan is to get ready to go with humans to Mars in the late 2030s, and then even further beyond.”

Orion was originally planned to splash down off the coast of San Diego, but the weather forecast there made that a no-go, and the flight director adjusted its trajectory. That flexibility comes thanks to a maneuver the team attempted called a “skip” reentry, in which Orion descended partway through the atmosphere to an altitude of about 40 miles, then skipped upward and forward like a pebble skimming across a pond, and then entered the atmosphere for good. That kind of reentry also helps to slow down the spacecraft.

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The reentry brought Orion within 0.02 degrees of the team’s planned flight angle, and the splashdown into the ocean was a near bullseye, about 2 nautical miles from its target landing site. Once the chutes drifted down, all five balloon-like bags inflated, keeping Orion upright in the water. NASA and Navy officials on the recovery team—in helicopters and boats—then made their approach, preparing to retrieve the spacecraft and stow it in the belly of the USS Portland for the trek back to shore.

In the coming months, the Artemis team will also study data taken from the communication systems and the many space radiation sensors attached to the three mannequins aboard Orion. (A stuffed Shaun the Sheep character also went along for the ride.) That information, important for maintaining a habitable capsule for the crew and ensuring communication between the craft and engineers on the ground, will help the team prepare for Artemis 2. On that trip, planned for 2024, astronauts will fly around the moon in a second version of the Orion spacecraft and scope out potential landing spots for the third mission. NASA and its international and commercial partners are already at work on that new capsule, the Space Launch System rocket and boosters that will launch it, and the European service module that propels, powers, and cools it. The team may tweak the design of some of these systems depending on their analysis of Artemis 1.

NASA already knows that much went right on the inaugural 26-day, 1.4-million mile mission: Despite several launch delays caused by persistent hydrogen leaks and the unlucky arrival of a hurricane, the massive SLS rocket successfully lifted off on November 16. The upper stage rocket then deployed 10 little satellites, which went on their own secondary missions. Orion voyaged within 80 miles of the lunar surface, and on November 28, it traveled the farthest from Earth a crew-capable spacecraft has ever gone, about 269,000 miles from home. And on December 5, Orion’s cameras took photos of the moon and Earth during its final lunar flyby, an homage to the iconic “Earthrise” image taken by astronaut Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8 in 1968.

But some of those mini missions failed. The CubeSat to Study Solar Particles, or CuSP, had what the agency dubbed an “unexplained battery anomaly,” and then the research team lost contact with it. The Japanese OMOTENASHI lunar lander failed to reach the moon. NASA has also lost contact with the asteroid-bound NEA Scout and an infrared moon-mapper called LunIR. The outlook isn’t good for them, but they’re not necessarily doomed: NASA lost contact with the Capstone spacecraft in July and then restored it, and it’s now successfully orbiting the moon. But these small satellites have limited battery power, and some could not be recharged while the rocket’s launch was delayed. That means their batteries ran low on juice. 

Despite these challenges, the Artemis program is now well under way, exactly a half-century after the final Apollo mission. After Artemis 2’s crewed orbit around the moon, Artemis 3 will bring the first woman and the first person of color to its surface—the first people to walk on the moon since Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schnitt’s landing at the valley of Taurus-Littrow in 1972. Subsequent missions will deliver and assemble modules of the Gateway space station that will orbit the moon, and could serve as a way station and proving ground for future expeditions to Mars.

As Orion gently splashed down onto the ocean yesterday, NASA commentator Rob Navia reflected on what that achievement meant. “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,” he said. He described Orion as NASA’s “new ticket to ride to the moon and beyond.”

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