NASA’s Orion capsule is set to blast off into the Pacific Ocean after concluding a three-week test flight that included a close pass on the moon and a trip farther into space than any previous habitable spacecraft.
The capsule is expected to land at 17:39 GMT Sunday (9:39 am local time) off the Mexican island of Guadalupe.
Last month Orion — with a simulation crew of three mannequins — launched NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return people to the moon and prepare for a trip to Mars one day.
So far, Orion’s flight has gone very well, according to NASA.
In late November, the capsule reached its furthest point in space, departing 432,210 kilometers (268,563 miles) from Earth while halfway through its 25-day mission. That’s roughly 32,187 kilometers (20,000 miles) short of the record distance set by the Apollo 13 crew in 1970, which aborted its moon landing and returned to Earth after a near-catastrophic mechanical failure.
On Monday, Orion sailed within 130 kilometers (80 miles) of the lunar surface, achieving the closest approach to the moon for a spacecraft built to carry humans since Apollo 17 flew half a century ago.
But, it’s only in the last minutes of Orion’s flight on Sunday that the real challenge comes — figuring out if the capsule’s heat shield, the largest ever, really holds.
The spacecraft – which is expected to hurtle into Earth’s atmosphere at 40,000 kilometers per hour (25,000 miles per hour) – will have to endure a temperature of 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,072 degrees Fahrenheit) – about half the temperature of the sun’s surface.
The first test of the capsule took place in 2014, but after that the capsule remained in Earth’s orbit, so it returned to the atmosphere at a slower speed of about 32,187 kilometers per hour.
Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said Orion’s heat shield was “a piece of equipment that is of paramount importance to safety.”
It is designed to protect the spacecraft and the passengers, the astronauts on board. So the heat shield should work.
NASA sent a US Navy ship, the USS Portland, as well as helicopters and inflatable boats to retrieve the Orion capsule.
Once in the water, NASA will allow Gemini to float for two hours — much longer than if the astronauts were inside — in order to collect data that is critical to future missions.
“We’ll see how it absorbs heat back into the crew module and how that affects the temperature inside,” said Jim Jeffrey, NASA’s Orion spacecraft integration manager.
Other information that will be collected includes the condition of the ship after its flight, data from monitors that measure acceleration and vibration, and the performance of a special jacket placed on a mannequin in the capsule to test how to protect people from radiation while flying through space.
If the mission is successful, a manned Artemis II flight could come around the moon and back as early as 2024, but still without landing on it.
NASA is expected to name the astronauts selected for this flight soon.
Artemis III, scheduled for 2025, will see a spacecraft land for the first time on the moon’s south pole, which features water in the form of ice.
Only 12 people – all white men – have ever set foot on the Moon. They did this during the Apollo missions, most recently in 1972.
Artemis is set to send a woman and a person of color to the moon for the first time.
NASA’s goal is to establish a permanent human presence on the moon through a base on its surface and an orbiting space station.
Having people learn to live on the Moon would help engineers develop technologies for a years-long journey to Mars, perhaps in the late 2030s.