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NASA’s Orion Returns to Earth After Moon Orbit

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft splashed down to Earth at 12:40 Eastern time on Sunday, 50 years after
17 landed on the moon with astronauts aboard. 

The successful $4 billion test flight clears the way for Orion’s next moonflight in 2024, when it will return to orbit the moon with four astronauts on board. A two-person lunar landing is projected for 2025.

The uncrewed Orion re-entered the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, withstanding temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and landed in the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico’s Baja California. The vessel and its three test dummies, outfitted with vibration sensors and radiation monitors, were recovered by a Navy ship.

During its 1.4 million-mile trip, Orion rocketed to the moon, entered a wide orbit around the moon, getting as close as 80 miles of the lunar surface, and snapped a picture of the crescent Earth from space, before returning home. Orion stayed in space longer than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has without docking at the International Space Station, NASA said. It also surpassed the distance Apollo 13’s distance traveled by a spacecraft designed to carry humans.

NASA for the first time also tested a new re-entry method where Orion bounced off the upper layer of air before re-entering the atmosphere, a maneuver designed to reduce the gravity loads and allow for a more precise landing. 

The mission was completed after numerous weather and mechanical issues delayed the launch, and the splashdown location was moved from the Southern California coast after forecasts of high wind and choppy seas.

Artemis, NASA’s multiyear program to return astronauts to the moon, has worked with Lockheed Martin, which developed the Orion spacecraft, the private rocket company SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and others to develop vehicles and components.

Earlier on Sunday, a spacecraft belonging to ispace, a Tokyo company intent on developing an economy on the moon, left from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Two U.S. companies are launching lunar landings next year.

Write to Janet H. Cho at 


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