NASA's Orion spacecraft returns to Earth after historic Moon mission

NASA's Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday after a record-breaking mission.

| Updated on: Dec 12 2022, 23:54 IST
How well do you know Earth's Moon? How did it form, rotation, its orbit? Get up close and familiar- 5 points
1/5 How did the Moon form? According to the information provided by NASA, the leading theory behind the formation of the Moon is that a Mars-sized object collided with Earth billions of years ago, and debris from this collision eventually formed the Moon. (NASA)
2/5 Moon's rotation: The time it takes for the Moon to rotate once on its axis is equal to the time it takes for the Moon to orbit once around Earth. This keeps the same side of the Moon facing towards Earth throughout the month. (NASA)
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3/5 Moon orbit Earth: According to NASA, the Moon takes about one month to orbit Earth (27.3 days to complete a revolution, but 29.5 days to change from New Moon to New Moon). As the Moon completes each 27.3-day orbit around Earth, both Earth and the Moon are moving around the Sun. Because of this change in position, sunlight appears to hit the Moon at a slightly different angle on day 27 than it does on day zero ― even though the Moon itself has already traveled all the way around Earth. It takes a little more than two additional days for sunlight to hit the Moon in the same way it did on day zero. This is why it takes 29.5 days to get from new moon to new moon, even though it doesn’t take quite that long for the Moon itself to travel once around Earth. (NASA)
4/5 Does the Moon have gravity? What would happen if there was no Moon? The Moon does have gravity. Because the Moon has less mass than Earth, its gravitational pull is weaker (about one-sixth of Earth’s). On the Moon, you will be able to jump about six times as high as you can on Earth ― but you would still come back down, informs NASA. Also, If there would be no Moon, Earth would be a very different world. The Moon’s gravity keeps our planet from wobbling on its axis too much, which helps to stabilize our climate. The Moon also plays an important role in creating tides in Earth’s oceans. (NASA)
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5/5 Who Has Walked on the Moon? Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin were the first of 12 human beings to walk on the Moon. Four of America's moonwalkers are still alive: Aldrin (Apollo 11), David Scott (Apollo 15), Charles Duke (Apollo 16), and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17). In all, 24 American astronauts made the trip from Earth to the Moon between 1968 and 1972. Three astronauts made the journey from Earth to the Moon twice: James Lovell (Apollo 8 and Apollo 13), John Young (Apollo 10 and Apollo 16), and Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and Apollo 17). (NASA)
NASA Orion spacecraft
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Over the course of 25.5 days, NASA tested Orion in the harsh environment of deep space before flying astronauts on Artemis II. (AP)

NASA's Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, west of Baja California, at 9:40 a.m. PST on Sunday after a record-breaking mission, traveling more than 1.4 million miles on a path around the Moon and returning safely to Earth, completing the Artemis I flight test.

Splashdown is the final milestone of the Artemis I mission that began with a successful liftoff of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on November 16, from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Over the course of 25.5 days, NASA tested Orion in the harsh environment of deep space before flying astronauts on Artemis II.

"The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft - which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 Moon landing - is the crowning achievement of Artemis I. From the launch of the world's most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the Moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis Generation of lunar exploration," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "It wouldn't be possible without the incredible NASA team. For years, thousands of individuals have poured themselves into this mission, which is inspiring the world to work together to reach untouched cosmic shores. Today is a huge win for NASA, the United States, our international partners, and all of humanity."

During the mission, Orion performed two lunar flybys, coming within 80 miles of the lunar surface. At its farthest distance during the mission, Orion traveled nearly 270,000 miles from our home planet, more than 1,000 times farther than where the International Space Station orbits Earth, to intentionally stress systems before flying crew.

"With Orion safely returned to Earth we can begin to see our next mission on the horizon which will fly crew to the Moon for the first time as a part of the next era of exploration," said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. "This begins our path to a regular cadence of missions and a sustained human presence at the Moon for scientific discovery and to prepare for human missions to Mars. "

Prior to entering the Earth's atmosphere, the crew module separated from its service module, which is the propulsive powerhouse provided by ESA (European Space Agency). During re-entry, Orion endured temperatures about half as hot as the surface of the Sun at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Within about 20 minutes, Orion slowed from nearly 25,000 mph to about 20 mph for its parachute-assisted splashdown.

During the flight test, Orion stayed in space longer than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has done without docking to a space station. While in a distant lunar orbit, Orion surpassed the record for distance traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans, previously set during Apollo 13.

"Orion has returned from the Moon and is safely back on planet Earth," said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. "With splashdown, we have successfully operated Orion in the deep space environment, where it exceeded our expectations, and demonstrated that Orion can withstand the extreme conditions of returning through Earth's atmosphere from lunar velocities."

Recovery teams are now working to secure Orion for the journey home. NASA leads the interagency landing and recovery team on the USS Portland, which consists of personnel and assets from the U.S. Department of Defense, including Navy amphibious specialists, Space Force weather specialists, and Air Force specialists, as well as engineers and technicians from NASA Kennedy, the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.

In the coming days, Orion will return to shore where technicians will offload the spacecraft and transfer it by truck back to Kennedy. Once at Kennedy, teams will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including Commander Moonikin Campos, the space biology experiments, Snoopy, and the official flight kit. Next, the capsule and its heat shield will undergo testing and analysis over the course of several months.

Artemis I was the first integrated test of NASA's deep space exploration systems - the Orion spacecraft, SLS rocket, and the supporting ground systems - and was supported by thousands of people around the world, from contractors who built the spacecraft and rocket, and the ground infrastructure needed to launch them, to international and university partners, to small businesses supplying subsystems and components.

Through Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence and serving as a stepping stone for astronauts on the way to Mars.

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First Published Date: 12 Dec, 23:54 IST