NASA continues to evaluate data and learn more about the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s debut performance during the agency’s Nov. 16 Artemis I launch. Following an initial data assessment and review that determined the SLS rocket met or exceeded all performance expectations, SLS engineers are now taking a closer look at the Moon rocket’s performance to prepare for the first crewed Artemis missions.
The Artemis I Orion spacecraft is on its way back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After completing a 25.5-day, 1.4-million-mile journey beyond the Moon and back Dec. 11, the spacecraft was recovered from the Pacific Ocean and transported to U.S. Naval Base San Diego, where engineers prepared the spacecraft for its trek by truck to Kennedy. Orion is scheduled to arrive to Kennedy’s Multi Payload Processing Facility by the end of the year.
Once at Kennedy, technicians will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including Commander Moonikin Campos, zero-gravity indicator Snoopy, and the official flight kit as part of de-servicing operations. In addition to removing the payloads, Orion’s heat shield and other elements will be removed for analysis, and remaining hazards will be offloaded.
NASA also has released new aerial footage of Orion’s descent through the clouds and splashdown taken from an Unmanned Aircraft System or drone. View the new imagery of spacecraft’s return to Earth here.
The Orion spacecraft has been secured in the well deck of the USS Portland. The ship will soon begin its trip back to U.S. Naval Base San Diego, where engineers will remove Orion from the ship in preparation for transport back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for post-flight analysis.
Upon Orion’s successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California at 9:40 PST/12:40 EST Dec. 11, flight controllers in mission control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston spent about two hours performing tests in open water to gather additional data about the spacecraft, including on its thermal properties after enduring the searing heat of re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Recovery personnel also spent time collecting detailed imagery of the spacecraft before beginning to pull the capsule into the USS Portland’s well deck.
The recovery process involved divers attaching a cable called a winch line and several additional tending lines attached to the crew module. The winch was used to pull Orion into a specially designed cradle inside the ship’s well deck and the other lines were used to control the motion of the spacecraft. The recovery team consists of personnel and assets from the U.S. Department of Defense, including Navy amphibious specialists and Space Force weather specialists, and engineers and technicians from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.
Orion is expected to arrive to shore Dec. 13 with offload expected on Dec. 15.
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.
The Orion spacecraft is on its last full day in space with splashdown off the Baja Coast near Guadalupe Island targeted for 11:39 a.m. CST (12:39 p.m. EST) on Sunday, Dec. 11.
Engineers conducted the final Artemis I in-space developmental flight test objective to characterize temperature impacts on solar array wings from plumes, or exhaust gases. Once the solar array wing was in the correct test position, flight controllers fired the reaction control system thrusters using opposing thrusters simultaneously to balance the torque and test a variety of firing patterns. Engineers will perform several additional flight test objectives after Orion splashes down in the water and before powering down the spacecraft.
The fifth return trajectory correction burn occurred at 2:32 p.m. CST, Saturday, Dec. 10. During the burn the auxiliary engines fired for 8 seconds, accelerating the spacecraft by 3.4 mph (5 feet per second) to ensure Orion is on course for splashdown. The sixth and final trajectory correction burn will take place about five hours before Orion enters Earth’s atmosphere.
On Orion’s return to Earth, NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) will facilitate communications for the final return trajectory correction burn, spacecraft separation, re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown. Shortly before the service module separates from the crew module, communication will be switched from NASA’s Deep Space Network to its Near Space Network for the remainder of the mission. Located in geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth, TDRS are used to relay data from spacecraft at lower altitudes to ground antennas. During re-entry, the intense heat generated as Orion encounters the atmosphere turns the air surrounding the capsule into plasma and briefly disrupts communication with the spacecraft.
Recovery forces have arrived on location off the coast of Baja where they will stand by to greet the spacecraft after its re-entry back into the atmosphere at 25,000 mph. On the ship, personnel are running through preparations and simulations to ensure the interagency landing and recovery team, led by Exploration Ground Systems from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is ready to support recovery operations. The team consists of personnel and assets from the U.S. Department of Defense, including Navy amphibious specialists and Space Force weather specialists, and engineers and technicians from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Lockheed Martin Space Operations.
Teams will recover Orion and attempt to recover hardware jettisoned during landing, including the forward bay cover and three main parachutes. A four-person team of engineers from Johnson will be aboard the U.S. Navy recovery ship using “Sasquatch” software to identify the footprint of hardware released from the capsule. The primary objective for the Sasquatch team is to help the ship get as close as possible to Orion for a quick recovery. A secondary objective is to recover as many additional elements as possible for analysis later.
Just after 2 p.m. CST Dec. 10, Orion was 113,453 miles from Earth and 239,432 miles from the Moon, cruising at 3,375 miles per hour.
View the latest imagery of the Moon, Earth, and Orion on NASA’s Johnson Space Center Flickr account and Image and Video Library. When bandwidth allows, views of the mission are available in real-time.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is on course for its return to Earth on Sunday, Dec. 11. The spacecraft made its second and final close approach to the Moon at 10:43 a.m. CST Monday, Dec. 5, just before its return powered flyby burn, passing 80.6 miles above the lunar surface.
The burn, which used the spacecraft’s main engine on the European-built service module, lasted 3 minutes, 27 seconds, and changed the velocity of the spacecraft by about 655 mph (961 feet per second). It was the final major engine maneuver of the flight test.
“Orion is heading home! Today the team achieved another momentous accomplishment, flying Orion just 80 miles from the surface of the Moon. The lunar flyby enabled the spacecraft to harness the Moon’s gravity and slingshot it back toward Earth for splashdown,” said Administrator Bill Nelson. “When Orion re-enters Earth’s atmosphere in just a few days, it will come back hotter and faster than ever before – the ultimate test before we put astronauts on board. Next up, re-entry!”
Several hours before the lunar flyby, the spacecraft performed a trajectory correction burn at 4:43 a.m. CST using the reaction control system thrusters on the service module. The burn lasted 20.1 seconds and changed the velocity of the spacecraft by 1.39 mph (2.04 feet per second).
The mission management team convened and polled “go” to deploy recovery assets off the coast of California ahead of Orion’s splashdown on Dec. 11. As soon as Orion splashes down, a team of divers, engineers, and technicians will depart the ship on small boats and arrive at the capsule. Once there, they will secure it and prepare to tow it into the back of the ship, known as the well deck. The divers will attach a cable to pull the spacecraft into the ship, called the winch line, and up to four additional tending lines to attach points on the spacecraft. 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, the well deck will be drained and Orion will be secured on the cradle.
“Last week, we completed our final rehearsal with the USS Portland, which will be our recovery ship for Artemis I,” said Melissa Jones, landing and recovery director, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “We had a great three days working with them to refine our procedures and integrate our teams so we can meet the objectives of recovering the Orion spacecraft.”
Orion has used approximately 8,050 pounds of propellant during Artemis I, which is 180 pounds less than expected prelaunch. There are 2,075 pounds of margin available over what was planned for the mission, a 165-pound increase.
As of 5:29 p.m. CST on Dec. 5, Orion was traveling 244,629 miles from Earth and 16,581 miles from the Moon, cruising at 668 mph.
NASA Television and the agency’s website will resume live coverage of Orion’s journey at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
As Orion leaves the lunar sphere of influence for the final time, watch NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn read the children’s book Goodnight Moon from space during his expedition aboard the International Space Station as part of a collaboration with Crayola Education to bring stories and the unique teachings of space to life with art and creativity.
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.
Orion performed the second return trajectory correction burn on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 10:43 a.m. CST, using the auxiliary thrusters and increasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1.16 mph (1.71 feet per second).
Shortly after acquiring signal with the Deep Space Network’s Canberra ground station at 12:41 a.m. CST, Orion experienced an issue with a power conditioning distribution unit (PCDU), in which four of the latching current limiters responsible for downstream power were switched off. These lower-level switches connect to the propulsion and heater subsystems. Teams confirmed the system was healthy and successfully repowered the downstream components. There was no interruption of power to any critical systems, and there were no adverse effects to Orion’s navigation or communication systems.
Teams are examining whether a potential contributor to this issue is related to a power configuration test implemented by the flight teams to investigate previous instances in which one of eight units opened without a command. The umbilical was successfully commanded closed each time and there was no loss of power flowing to avionics on the spacecraft.
The spacecraft obtained additional data using its optical navigation system, which is a sensitive camera to take images of the Moon and Earth to help orient the spacecraft by looking at the size and position of the celestial bodies in the images. Engineers also continue to work plans to accomplish several additional test objectives during Orion’s journey back to Earth. A host of test objectives provide information to engineers about how Orion operates in space, allowing them opportunities to validate performance models and learn as much as possible about the spacecraft.
In preparation for Orion’s return to Earth, the team from NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Program and the U.S. Navy, who will recover Orion from the Pacific Ocean, completed its final training day at sea, using a mock capsule in the water for divers and small boats to practice open water recovery procedures.
On Monday, Dec. 5, Orion will make its closest approach to the Moon, flying 79.2 miles above the lunar surface. It will perform the return powered flyby burn at 10:43 a.m. CST, which will last about 3 minutes and 27 seconds, changing the velocity of the spacecraft by approximately 655 mph (961 feet per second). The return powered flyby is the last large maneuver of the mission, with only smaller trajectory corrections to target Earth remaining.
Live coverage of the close lunar flyby and burn will begin at 8 a.m. CST on NASA TV, the agency’s website, and the NASA app. During the coverage, lighting will be different than it was during Orion’s initial close lunar flyby on Nov. 21. The spacecraft will lose communications with Earth for approximately 31 minutes beginning at 10:40 a.m. CST, as it flies behind the far side of the Moon.
At 4 p.m. CST on Dec. 5, NASA leaders will discuss the results of the return powered flyby burn and the deployment of recovery assets to sea ahead of Orion’s splashdown on Dec. 11. Live coverage will be available on all NASA channels.
Just after 4:30 p.m. CST on Dec. 4, Orion was traveling 222,213 miles from Earth and 23,873 miles from the Moon, cruising at 3,076 mph.
Orion re-entered the lunar sphere of influence at 4:45 p.m. CST Saturday, Dec. 3, making the Moon the main gravitational force acting on the spacecraft. Entry into the lunar sphere of entry occurred when the spacecraft was about 39,993 miles from the lunar surface. It will exit the lunar sphere of influence for a final time on Tuesday, Dec. 6, one day after the return powered flyby about 79 miles above the lunar surface.
On Flight Day 18, engineers also performed a development flight test objective that changed the minimum jet firing time for the reaction control thrusters over a period of 24 hours. This test objective is designed to exercise the reaction control system jets in a pre-planned sequence to model jet thruster firings that will be incorporated into the crewed Artemis II mission.
The test used the reaction control system (RCS) thrusters, built by ArianeGroup, on the European Service Module. All firings of RCS thrusters during the flight test to date have used those on the service module. Another set of 12 RCS thrusters, built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are located on the crew module.
While the crew module thrusters will be tested a few days before Orion’s splashdown on Earth, their primary role takes place in the final hour before splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. After the crew module and service module separate the crew module’s RCS thrusters will be used to ensure the spacecraft is properly oriented for re-entry, with its heat shield pointed forward, and stable during descent under parachutes.
Orion will be out of communication with NASA’s Deep Space Network for about 4.5 hours from 7:40 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. while network teams reconfigure ground stations. The flight control team has adjusted the activity timeline, and there is no impact to the mission’s trajectory. Automated commands will guide the spacecraft during this period, and Orion will reacquire signal as it passes within range of the Canberra ground station.
Just after 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, Orion was traveling 221,630 miles from Earth and 40,086 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,777 miles per hour.
After departing distant retrograde orbit the afternoon of Thursday, Dec. 1, Orion completed a planned trajectory correction burn to fine-tune its course toward the Moon. The five-second burn occurred at 9:54 p.m. CST Thursday, and changed the spacecraft’s velocity by about 0.3 mph or less than half a foot per second.
Dec. 2, teams collected additional images with Orion’s optical navigation camera and downlinked a wide variety of data files to the ground, including data from the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor, or HERA. The radiation detector measures charged particles that pass through its sensors. Measurements from HERA and several other radiation-related sensors and experiments aboard Artemis I will help NASA better understand the space radiation environment future crews will experience and develop effective protections. On crewed missions, HERA will be part of the spacecraft’s caution and warning system and will sound a warning in the case of a solar energetic particle event, notifying the crew to take shelter. NASA is also testing a similar HERA unit aboard the International Space Station.
Orion carries other experiments to gather data on radiation, including several radiation area monitors about the size of a matchbox that record the total radiation dose during the mission, dosimeters provided by ESA (European Space Agency) mounted inside the cabin to collect radiation data with time stamps to allow scientists to assess dose rates during various mission phases, and three “purposeful passengers” collecting additional information on what crews will experience during future missions. Four space biology investigations, collectively called Biology Experiement-1, are examining the impact of deep space radiation on seeds, fungi, yeast, and algae.
Orion will reenter the lunar sphere of influence on Saturday, Dec. 3, making the Moon the main gravitational force acting on the spacecraft. It will exit the lunar sphere of influence for a final time on Tuesday, Dec. 6, one day after its return powered flyby about 79 miles above the lunar surface.
A total of about 7,940 pounds of propellant has been used, which is about 150 pounds less that the amount expected before launch. Approximately 2,040 pounds of margin is available beyond what flight controllers plan to use for the remainder of the mission, which is nearly 130 pounds more than expected amounts before launch. About 97 gigabytes of data have been sent to the ground by the spacecraft.
Just after 1 p.m. CST on Dec. 2, Orion was traveling 229,812 miles from Earth and 50,516 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,512 miles per hour.
The Artemis I mission management team met today to review the overall status of the flight test and polled “go” for Orion to depart from its distant retrograde orbit, where it has been since Nov. 25. Orion will conduct a burn to depart the orbit at 3:53 p.m. CST Thurs., Dec. 1 and begin its trek back toward Earth.
“We are continuing to collect flight test data and buy down risk for crewed flight,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager. “We continue to learn how the system is performing, where our margins are, and how to operate and work with the vehicle as an integrated team.”
On Flight Day 15, Orion also performed a planned orbit maintenance burn to maintain the spacecraft’s trajectory and decrease its velocity ahead of its Thursday departure from a distant lunar orbit. During the burn, Orion used six of its auxiliary thrusters on the European Service module to fire for 95 seconds. The burn was initially planned for a shorter duration but was lengthened as part of the team’s effort to add test objectives to the mission. The 95-second burn provided additional data to characterize the thrusters and the radiative heating on the spacecraft’s solar array wings to help inform Orion’s operational constraints. All previous thruster burns were 17 seconds or less.
Orion’s European-built service module has provided the propulsive capabilities to adjust the spacecraft’s course in space via its 33 engines of various types, and serves as Orion’s powerhouse, supplying it will electricity, thermal control, and air and water for future crews, in addition to propulsion. Artemis I is the first time NASA is using a European-built system as a critical element to power an American spacecraft. Provided by ESA (European Space Agency) and its partner Airbus Defence and Space, the service module extends NASA’s international cooperation from the International Space Station into deep space exploration.
NASA is continuing to extend its relationships with its international partners to explore the Moon under Artemis. The agency’s Gateway, a multi-purpose outpost in development to orbit the Moon that will provide essential support for long-term lunar exploration, includes contributions from ESA as well as the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Agencywide, NASA has more than 600 active international agreements with organizations and space agencies around the world.
Teams also elected to add four additional test objectives to Orion’s return trip to Earth to gather additional data on the spacecraft’s capabilities. Two will evaluate whether opening and closing a valve the pressure control assembly affects a slow leak rate in that system; a third will demonstrate Orion’s ability to perform attitude maneuvers at the rate that will be necessary for a test on Artemis II; and the fourth will test its capability to fly in a three degree of freedom attitude control mode, as opposed to the six degree of freedom mode it typically flies in.
Prior to today’s orbital maintenance burn, a total of 5,681 pounds of propellant had been used, 203 pounds less than values expected before launch. Some 2,004 pounds of margin is available beyond what is planned for use during the mission, a 94-pound increase above prelaunch expected values.
Just after 4 p.m. CST on Nov. 30, Orion was traveling 253,079 miles from Earth and 50,901 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,052 mph.
Coverage of the distant retrograde orbit departure burn will begin Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST, with the burn scheduled to occur at 3:53 p.m. Watch live on NASA TV, the agency’s website, and the NASA app.
View the latest imagery of the Moon, Earth, and Orion on NASA’s Johnson Space Center Flickr account and Image and Video Library. When bandwidth allows, views of the mission are available in real-time.