NASA’s Orion spacecraft successfully completed a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 9:40 PST, 12:40 EST as the final major milestone of the Artemis I mission. Engineers will perform several additional tests while Orion is in the water and before powering down the spacecraft and handing it over to the recovery team aboard the USS Portland.
At the direction of the NASA recovery director, Navy divers and other team members in several inflatable boats will approach the spacecraft. When Orion is ready to be pulled into the ship’s well deck at the waterline, the divers will attach a cable, called the winch line, to pull the spacecraft into the ship and up to four additional tending lines to attach points on the crew module. The winch will pull Orion into a specially designed cradle inside the ship’s well deck and the other lines will control the motion of the spacecraft. Once Orion is positioned above the cradle assembly, technicians will drain the well deck and secure it on the cradle.
Once aboard the vessel, teams will take the spacecraft to U.S. Naval Base San Diego and soon return it to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for inspection. Technicians in Florida will thoroughly inspect Orion, retrieving data recorded on board, removing onboard payloads, and more.
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 the first in a series of increasingly complex missions at the Moon. Through Artemis missions, NASA will establish a long-term lunar presence for scientific discovery and prepare for human missions to Mars.
NASA will host a post-splashdown news conference is targeted for 3:30 p.m. EST
Bill Nelson, NASA administrator
Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration System Development Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters
Vanessa Wyche, director, Johnson
Janet Petro, director, Kennedy
Mike Sarafin, mission manager, NASA Headquarters
Howard Hu, Orion Program manager, Johnson
Emily Nelson, chief flight director, Johnson
Melissa Jones, recovery director, Kennedy
The crew module of NASA’s Orion spacecraft has successfully separated from its service module at 11:00 a.m. CST in preparation for the crew module’s return to Earth. The service module will burn up harmlessly 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.
Next, the crew module will perform a skip entry technique, dipping into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and using that atmosphere, along with the lift of the capsule, to skip back out of the atmosphere, then reenter for final descent under parachutes and splash down. This technique enables the spacecraft to accurately and consistently splash down at the selected landing site for Artemis missions regardless of when and where they return from the Moon. During re-entry, the enormous heat generated as Orion encounters the atmosphere turns the air surrounding the capsule into plasma, which will briefly disrupt communications with the spacecraft.
Below are the upcoming re-entry milestones in CST:
Earth’s atmosphere initially will slow the spacecraft to 325 mph, then the parachutes will slow Orion to a safe splashdown speed of 20 mph or less as it descends through Earth’s atmosphere. Parachute deployment begins at an altitude of about five miles with three small parachutes pulling the forward bay covers away. Once the forward bay cover separates, two drogue parachutes will slow and stabilize the crew module for main parachute deployment. At an altitude of 9,500 feet and a spacecraft speed of 130 mph, three pilot parachutes will lift and deploy the main parachutes to slow Orion to a landing speed that ensures astronaut safety for crewed missions.
When Orion splashes down, the crew module uprighting system, also known as CMUS, deploys a series of five bright-orange helium-filled bags on the top of the capsule to upright the capsule in the event it stabilizes upside down. The system will deploy regardless of the landing position of the capsule, and it takes less than four minutes to upright the capsule if needed. The capsule must be upright for crew module communication systems to operate correctly and to help protect the health of the crew members inside on future missions.
Live coverage is underway on NASA Television, the agency’s website, and the NASA app for Orion’s return to Earth as part of the 25.5 day Artemis I flight test.
The sixth and final return trajectory correction burn occurred at 6:20 a.m. CST Sunday, Dec. 11. During the burn the auxiliary engines fired for 8 seconds, accelerating the spacecraft by .68 mph (.99 feet per second) to ensure Orion is on course for splashdown.
Orion’s crew module will separate from its service module, which is the propulsive powerhouse provided by ESA (European Space Agency), at 11:00 a.m. CST. The crew module will enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 11:20 a.m., and the spacecraft will splashdown with a parachute-assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California at 11:39 a.m.
The Artemis I mission began with a successful liftoff of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket Nov. 16, from Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Over the course of flight test, flight controllers have tested Orion’s capabilities in the harsh environment of deep space to prepare for flying astronauts on Artemis II.
Teams in Mission Control Houston conducted spacecraft system checks ahead of Orion’s planned splashdown on Dec. 11, while the Exploration Ground Systems recovery team made its way toward the landing area off the Baja Coast near Guadalupe Island.
Flight controllers activated the crew module reaction control system heater and conducted a hot-fire test for each thruster as planned. The five pulses for each thruster lasted 75 milliseconds each, and were conducted in opposing pairs to minimize attitude changes during the test. Thrust for the crew module propulsion system is generated from 12 monopropellant MR-104G engines. These engines are a variant of MR-104 thrusters, which have been used in other NASA spacecraft, including the interplanetary Voyagers 1 and 2.
Approximately 12,100 pounds of propellant have been used, which is 240 pounds less than estimated prelaunch, and leaves a margin of 2,230 pounds over what is planned for use, 324 pounds more than prelaunch expectations.
On its way back to Earth, Orion will pass through a period of intense radiation as it travels through the Van Allen Belts that contain space radiation trapped around Earth by the planet’s magnetosphere. Outside the protection of Earth’s magnetic field, the deep space radiation environment includes energetic particles produced by the Sun during solar flares as well as particles from cosmic rays that come from outside the galaxy.
Orion was designed from the start to ensure reliability of essential spacecraft systems during potential radiation events and can become a makeshift storm shelter when crew members use shielding materials to form a barrier against solar energetic particles.
For the uncrewed Artemis I mission, Orion is carrying several instruments and experiments to better understand the environment future crews will experience and provide valuable information for engineers developing additional protective measures. There are active sensors connected to power that can send readings to Earth during the flight, as well as passive detectors that require no power source to collect radiation dose information that will be analyzed after the flight.
Commander Moonikin Campos is equipped with two radiation sensors, as well as a sensor under the headrest and another behind the seat to record acceleration and vibration throughout the mission. The seat is positioned in a recumbent, or laid-back, position with elevated feet, which will help maintain blood flow to the head for crew members on future missions during ascent and entry. The position also reduces the chance of injury by allowing the head and feet to be held securely during launch and landing, and by distributing forces across the entire torso during high acceleration and deceleration periods, such as splashdown.
A crew is expected to experience two-and-a-half times the force of gravity during ascent and four times the force of gravity at two different points during the planned reentry profile. Engineers will compare Artemis I flight data with previous ground-based vibration tests with the same manikin, and human subjects, to correlate performance prior to Artemis II.
In addition to the sensors on the manikin and seat, Campos is wearing a first-generation Orion Crew Survival System pressure suit – a spacesuit astronauts will wear during launch, entry, and other dynamic phases of their missions. Even though it’s primarily designed for launch and reentry, the Orion suit can keep astronauts alive if Orion were to lose cabin pressure during the journey out to the Moon, while adjusting orbits in Gateway, or on the way back home. Astronauts could survive inside the suit for up to six days as they make their way back to Earth. The outer cover layer is orange to make crew members easily visible in the ocean should they ever need to exit Orion without the assistance of recovery personnel, and the suit is equipped with several features for fit and function.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m. CST on Dec. 9, Orion was traveling 171,500 miles from Earth and 214,200 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,100 mph.
Watch the latest episode of Artemis All Access for a glimpse at the latest mission status and an inside look ahead of splashdown.
Live splashdown coverage will begin at 11 a.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 11. Splashdown is scheduled at 12:39 p.m., and coverage will continue through Orion’s handover from Mission Control in Houston to Exploration Ground Systems recovery teams in the Pacific Ocean. Coverage will be live on NASA TV, the agency’s website, and the NASA app.
On flight day 23 of NASA’s Artemis I mission, the Orion spacecraft continues making the return trip to Earth, capturing photos and video along the way.
“At present, we are on track to have a fully successful mission with some bonus objectives that we’ve achieved along the way,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager. “On entry day, we will realize 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.”
The mission management team met with the entry flight director and NASA recovery director as the planned splashdown of Orion Sunday, Dec. 11 is now about 72 hours away. They evaluated the weather and decided on a landing site in the Pacific Ocean near Guadalupe Island, south of the primary landing area. Watch the reentry preview briefing for more details.
Later tonight, flight controllers will conduct a final survey of Orion’s crew module and service module using cameras on each of the spacecraft’s four solar arrays. During the crew module inspection, flight controllers will be looking at the back shell made up of 1,300 thermal protection system tiles and will protect the spacecraft from the cold of space and the extreme heat of re-entry.
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 reenter 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.
Earth’s atmosphere initially will slow the spacecraft to 325 mph, then the parachutes will slow Orion to a splashdown speed in about 10 minutes as it descends through Earth’s atmosphere. Parachute deployment begins at an altitude of about five miles with three small parachutes pulling the forward bay covers away. Once the forward bay cover separates, two drogue parachutes will slow and stabilize the crew module for main parachute deployment. At an altitude of 9,500 feet and a spacecraft speed of 130 mph, three pilot parachutes will lift and deploy the main parachutes. Those 116-foot-diameter parachutes of nylon broadcloth, or “silk,” will slow the Orion crew module to a splashdown speed of 20 mph or less.
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. Learn more about Orion’s parachute system in the Artemis I reference guide.
NASA TV coverage of Artemis I’s return to Earth begins at 11 a.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 11. The Orion spacecraft is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean at 12:40 p.m. near Guadalupe Island.
Just before 6:00 p.m. CST on Dec. 8, Orion was traveling 207,200 miles from Earth and 180,400 miles from the Moon, cruising at 1,415 mph.
Orion has left its distant lunar orbit and is on its return journey home. The spacecraft successfully completed the distant retrograde departure burn at 3:53 p.m. CST, firing its main engine for 1 minute 45 seconds to set the spacecraft on course for a close lunar flyby before its return home.
The burn changed Orion’s velocity by about 454 feet per second and was performed using the Orion main engine on the European Service Module. The engine is an orbital maneuvering system engine modified for use on Orion and built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The engine has the ability to provide 6,000 pounds of thrust. The proven engine flying on Artemis I flew on 19 space shuttle flights, beginning with STS-41G in October 1984 and ending with STS-112 in October 2002.
The burn is one of two maneuvers required ahead of Orion’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. The second will occur on Monday, Dec. 5, when the spacecraft will fly 79.2 miles above the lunar surface and perform the return powered flyby burn, which will commit Orion on its course toward Earth.
Teams also continued thermal tests of the star trackers during their eighth and final planned test. Star trackers are a navigation tool that measure the positions of stars to help the spacecraft determine its orientation. In the first three flight days of the mission, engineers evaluated initial data to understand star tracker readings correlated to thruster firings.
A trajectory correction burn is planned for approximately 9:53 p.m. CST today, when Orion’s auxiliary thrusters will fine-tune the spacecraft’s path.
Just after 4:30 p.m. CST on Dec. 1, Orion was traveling 237,600 miles from Earth and 52,900 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,300 mph.
Orion is now about one day away from entering into a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. The orbit is “distant” in the sense that it’s at a high altitude approximately 50,000 miles from the surface of the Moon. Due to the distance, the orbit is so large that it will take the spacecraft six days to complete half of a revolution around the Moon before exiting the orbit for the return journey back to Earth.
During the last day in the transit to distant retrograde orbit, flight controllers performed a third in a series of planned star tracker development flight tests relative to the Sun, with a fourth planned for tomorrow. Star trackers are a navigation tool that measure the positions of stars to help the spacecraft determine its orientation. In the first three flight days, engineers evaluated initial data to understand star tracker readings correlated to thruster firings.
The spacecraft completed its sixth outbound trajectory correction burn at 3:52 p.m. CST, firing the European Service Module’s auxiliary engines for 17 seconds to propel the spacecraft at 8.9 feet per second. This is the final trajectory correction before entering distant retrograde orbit. When in lunar orbit, Orion will perform three orbital maintenance burns to keep the spacecraft on course.
Overnight, engineers will begin a 24-hour test of the reaction control system engines to evaluate engine performance for standard and non-standard thruster configurations. This test will provide data to inform procedures and ensure that the reaction control thrusters can control Orion’s orientation in an alternate configuration if there is an issue with the primary configuration.
Just after 1:42 p.m. CST on Nov. 24, Orion was traveling 222,993 miles from Earth and 55,819 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,610 miles per hour.
NASA Television coverage of the distant retrograde orbit insertion burn, scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 25. The burn is scheduled to take place at 4:52 p.m.
Images are sent down to Earth, and uploaded to NASA’s Johnson Space Center Flickr account and Image and Video Library. When bandwidth allows, views of the mission will be available in real-time via video stream.