The Artemis I mission just finished the final stretch of its journey, returning to the inner layer of the Earth’s atmosphere at a blazing speed. The spacecraft made a successful splashdown off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California in the Pacific on Sunday at 12:40 ET.
The 25½-day unmanned test flight around the moon helps lay the foundation for future astronauts missions. NASA’s Orion spacecraft made a 239,000 mile-trek between the moon and Earth.
This marked the last step before the more dangerous parts of the mission. However, NASA is celebrating the “textbook” reentry and splashdown.
“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday. “This is an extraordinary day.”
The capsule is currently bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. It will remain until nearly 3 p.m. ET as NASA collects additional data and runs through several tests. The entire mission aims to ensure the Orion spacecraft is ready to fly astronauts.
“We’re testing all of the heat that has come and been generated on the capsule. We want to make sure that we characterize how that’s going to affect the interior of the capsule,” Judd Frieling, NASA flight director, told reporters last week.
A fleet of boats, a helicopter and a US Naval ship called the USS Portland wait nearby the Artemis I capsule.
The spacecraft was traveling about 32 times the speed of sound as it hit the air. That translates to roughly 24,850 miles per hour. This means it was traveling so fast that compression waves caused the outside of the vehicle to heat to about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Artemis I Mission Capsule Performed Skip Maneuver
“The next big test is the heat shield,” Nelson had told CNN in a phone interview. This heat shield refers to the barrier designed to protect the Orion capsule from the incredibly strenuous process of reentering the earth’s atmosphere.
The extreme heat also caused air molecules to ionize. This started a buildup of plasma that caused a 5½-minute communications blackout, according to Frieling, who also served as the Artemis I flight director.
Around 200,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, directors had the capsule perform a roll maneuver. This briefly rocked the capsule back upward, similar to skipping a rock across a lake.
Officials explained the reasoning for the skip maneuver.
“Skip entry gives us a consistent landing site that supports astronaut safety because it allows teams on the ground to better and faster coordinate recovery efforts,” said Joe Bomba, who serves as Lockheed Martin’s Orion aerosciences aerothermal lead, in this statement. Lockheed serves as NASA’s primary contractor for the Orion spacecraft.
“By dividing the heat and force of reentry into two events, skip entry also offers benefits like lessening the g-forces astronauts are subject to,” according to Lockheed.
Another communications blackout followed the skip maneuver. That one lasted about three minutes.
By the time the spacecraft splashed down, Orion was traveling about 20 miles per hour, and the Artemis I mission was a success.