Artemis I: NASA releases beautiful photos of the moon as Orion prepares to return to Earth

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft has captured some brilliant photos during its final orbit around the moon before Orion’s planned return to Earth. The stunning new photos come just a few weeks after Orion launched aboard the Artemis I rocket.

The images were captured during Orion’s longest engine burn – three minutes and 27 seconds – on December 5, the 20th day of the Artemis I mission. The burn used the spacecraft’s main engine to change Orion’s velocity by more than 1,050 kph (655 mph).

Image credit: NASA

The burn on December 5 also set the stage for Orion’s planned December 11 splashdown in Baja California, Mexico. Orion should touch down off the coast of Baja California at 9:40 a.m. local time. Nujoud Fahoum Merancy, NASA’s chief of exploration mission planning, said on December 5, ‘We’re targeting for a very thin slice of atmosphere.’ It’ll be a tricky landing, and the most challenging part of the Artemis I mission.

So far, the mission has largely been a success, with only minor issues. The mission sets the stage for Artemis II, a crewed mission with four astronauts. Eventually, humankind will return to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis mission. Orion currently includes a couple of specialized mannequins and a floating Snoopy doll.

The tumultuous re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere will require Orion to slow down from 40,000 kph (nearly 25,000 mph) to a mere 32 kph (20 mph). That serious slowdown will put extreme stress on Orion’s heat shield. The heat shield needs to withstand about 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,072 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures.

Image credit: NASA

It’s fitting that Orion’s heat shield is constructed using the same epoxy resin used during the Apollo program. The application process has changed, but the resin itself is the same.

When Orion splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, it will have traveled more than 2.2 million km (1.37 million mi). The spacecraft has already set a distance record, having traveled 432,210 km (268,562 mi) from Earth, the furthest distance a spacecraft designed to carry humans has traveled from Earth. Breaking new ground comes with some concerns. While NASA isn’t testing Orion’s life support systems, it is using the mannequins onboard to test the possible effects of radiation. One of the two mannequins has a special vest to protect against radiation – the other doesn’t. The results of this experiement, plus others being conducted onboard, won’t be available until Orion is collected from the ocean on December 11.

The spacecraft will utilize a novel entry technique, never before used to return a spacecraft to Earth, that will require it to descend, ascend and descend again. The technique promises greater accuracy of the landing location. Joe Bomba, engineer at Lockheed Martin is nervous about the re-entry. The air around the spacecraft will ionize and get so hot that communications are severed for a few minutes. ‘That will be the most nerve-wracking part of the mission for me,’ Bomba said. ‘Being an engineer, I’m not going to sleep well until we’re in the well deck.’

Image credit: NASA

Orion’s landing will be live streamed by NASA. Artemis II is scheduled for 2024 and will follow a similar route as Artemis I, albeit with four astronauts aboard. Artemis III is scheduled for 2025 and plans to include a crewed lunar landing, the first since Apollo 17 in 1972.

To view more images from the Artemis I mission, visit NASA’s Flickr page.

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