What did the moon mission bring?

San Diego. splashdown! The space capsule “Orion” of the moon mission Artemis-1 is back on earth – after 25 days in space. At around 40,000 kilometers per hour, she entered the earth’s atmosphere on Sunday, where she was slowed down by several parachutes. At around 6.40 p.m. Central European Time, the capsule landed off the west coast of the USA, in the middle of the Pacific. And that was exactly the day the crew of the Apollo 17 mission last set foot on the moon 50 years ago.

The timing for the water landing of “Orion” could not have been better. With the help of specialists, divers and boats, the spacecraft was recovered from the water and brought to the port of San Diego in the US state of California. From there it finally began its journey home by truck to the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

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The head of the US space agency NASA, Bill Nelson, spoke of a “historic” moment. “Today is a great achievement for NASA, the United States, our international partners and all of humanity,” he said after Orion’s water landing. The return of the space capsule means one thing above all: it is still possible for mankind to fly to the moon and back again.

Difficult takeoff, difficult landing

The unmanned moon mission was initially under a bad star. The start was delayed several times – first because of technical difficulties, then because of poor weather conditions. It seemed like the way back to the moon was more difficult than expected. On November 16, about four months after the actual launch date, “Orion” finally took off into space aboard the “Space Launch System” rocket.

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But the launch wasn’t the mission’s only stumbling block. Landing should also be a challenge. Until recently, it was unclear whether it would be possible to brake the space capsule when it returned to earth in such a way that a water landing would be possible without problems. For this purpose, a new technique was used for the first time, the so-called skip entry. The spacecraft first dipped into the earth’s atmosphere, then left it again and then dipped again – like a stone that is bounced over the surface of water. At the same time, the heat shield had to withstand temperatures of around 2800 degrees Celsius.

Mission has amassed vast amounts of data

In the end, the crisis-ridden Artemis-1 mission was successfully completed. But the work is not done yet. Huge amounts of data have accumulated during the test flight around the moon. Jim Geffre, Orion Vehicle Integration Manager at NASA, put the amount of data at more than 140 gigabytes. These include not only details on the technology used on the mission, but also images of the moon, space and earth taken by the cameras on board the space capsule. There were also scientific experiments on board, which the researchers now have to evaluate.

Downloading and analyzing this data will certainly take several weeks, if not months. However, it is necessary in order to provide answers to questions such as: What did the moon mission achieve in the first place? What can be learned from the test flight for the upcoming lunar missions?

Space capsule undergoes stress test

“The aim of the first Artemis mission was to test the spacecraft under real conditions and put it through its paces,” said Philippe Deloo, program manager for the mission at the European Space Agency ESA. “So we used Orion and its European Service Module for maneuvers and operations that would not be strictly necessary on a manned mission. But we really wanted to push the spacecraft to the limit on its first mission.”

“Orion” has passed a real stress test. This is necessary to verify how safe and practical the spacecraft is in the event of a named lunar mission. So far, only the radiation measurement dummies Zohar and Helga from the German Aerospace Center were on board. In the future, real astronauts should sit in their seats. In order to determine the properties of the space capsule and the heat shield after their return to Earth, the researchers also want to carry out various further tests over several months.

The dolls Zohar and Helga are the only passengers on the Orion"-Capsule.  They should measure the radiation during their flight.

The dolls Zohar and Helga were the only passengers in the “Orion” capsule. They were supposed to measure the radiation during their flight.

Moon mission breaks multiple records

Only time will tell what needs to be changed or optimized for future moon missions with “Orion”. “What we have definitely learned is that ESA member states, NASA and industry can come together and build a human-grade spacecraft that can go to the moon and back,” said David Parker, ESA Director for human spaceflight and robotic exploration programs.

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Mind you, “Orion” didn’t just simply fly to the moon and back. The spacecraft also broke several records: During the test flight, it orbited the moon twice, covering a distance of more than 1.4 million miles (the equivalent of more than two million kilometers). In addition, the capsule came within 130 kilometers of the surface of the Earth’s satellite, stayed in space longer than any other spacecraft designed for humans and also traveled farther from Earth than any other spacecraft before.

The future of lunar exploration

“Now that Orion has returned safely to Earth, we can see our next mission on the horizon, which will see a crew fly to the moon for the first time as part of the next era of exploration,” said Jim Free, NASA assistant administrator for the Mission Directorate for the development of reconnaissance systems. “This is the beginning of our journey toward a regular cadence of missions and a sustained human presence on the Moon for scientific discovery and in preparation for human missions to Mars.”

In the future, NASA not only wants to orbit the moon, it also wants to land on the earth’s satellite again. This mission will be the first to include a woman and a non-white person. In addition, a space station is to be built near the moon, the so-called Lunar Gateway.

Preparations for the upcoming moon missions are already underway. In 2024, NASA wants astronauts to orbit the moon for the first time on board “Orion”, before the moon landing will follow at some point. “We still have some tough tasks ahead of us,” said Mike Sarafin, mission manager at the US space agency. “But we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve made and the path we’re on.”

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