NASA’s Artemis I Moon mission prepares to return to Earth this weekend

Artemis programme: Thales outline mission to land on the moon

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Bringing NASA’s Artemis I mission to a close, the crew module of the Orion spacecraft is set to make a triumphant return to Earth this weekend after more than 25 days in space. After evaluating weather forecasts, the space agency has selected a splashdown site near Guadalupe Island, in the Pacific Ocean, south of the primary landing area. The successful return of the Orion capsule, which was launched uncrewed yet bearing three radiation-measuring “phantoms”, will pave the way for a crewed test flight in early 2024 — and subsequently humanity’s triumphant return to the Moon after more than 50 years.

Artemis I mission manager said: “At present, we are on track to have a fully successful mission, with some bonus objectives that we’ve achieved along the way.

“On entry day, we will realise our priority one objective, which is to demonstrate the vehicle at lunar re-entry conditions, as well as our priority three objective, which is to retrieve the spacecraft.”

Last night saw mission flight controllers conduct a final survey of Orion’s crew and service modules using cameras located on the end of each of the spacecraft’s four solar arrays.

The focus of their examination was the capsule’s back shell — made up of a whopping 1,300 individual thermal protection system tiles — that insulates Orion from the cold of space and will protect it from the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry. Engineers reported no concerns after reviewing the camera imagery.

A NASA spokesperson said: “Just before re-entry, the crew module and service module will separate and only the crew module will return to Earth while the service module burns up in Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

“The Artemis I trajectory is designed to ensure any remaining parts do not pose a hazard to land, people, or shipping lanes.

“After separating from the service module, the crew module will prepare to perform a skip entry technique that enables the spacecraft to accurately and consistently splash down at the selected landing site.

“Orion will dip into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and use that atmosphere, along with the lift of the capsule, to skip back out of the atmosphere, then re-enter for final descent under parachutes and splash down.

“This technique will allow a safe re-entry for future Artemis missions regardless of when and where they return from the Moon.”

As of yesterday evening, the Orion spacecraft had left the lunar sphere of gravitational influence and was cruising back towards Earth at a speed of 1.415 miles per hour.

On initial entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the crew module will be decelerated to 325 miles per hour. Subsequent parachute deployment will bring the craft to a safe splashdown velocity over the course of around ten minutes.

The first chutes to be released — at an altitude of around give miles — are three small ones used to pull the forward bay covers away.

Following this, two so-called drogue parachutes will both stabilise the crew module and slow it down to a speed of 130 miles per hour, ready for the deployment of the main parachutes.

These — which are made of nylon broadcloth and are each 116 feet in diameter — will decelerate the Orion capsule down to a splashdown speed of just 20 miles per hour.

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In total, a NASA spokesperson explained, “The parachute system includes 11 parachutes made of 36.000 square feet of canopy material.

“The canopy is attached to the top of the spacecraft with more than 13 miles of Kevlar lines that are deployed in series using cannon-like mortars and pyrotechnic thrusters and bolt cutters.”

NASA is providing livestreamed coverage of the Orion capsule’s return to Earth, beginning at 11.00am EST (4.00pm GMT) on Sunday December 11.

The stream can be watched on either the NASA Live website, or via NASA’s YouTube channel. The space agency’s coverage of the launch can also be watched via the NASA app, which is available for both iOS and Android devices.

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