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Orion Splashes Down in Pacific, Ending NASA’s Historic Artemis 1 Moon Mission

After 25.5 days in space and 1.3 million miles traveled, Orion is back home following the thrilling debut of NASA’s Artemis program.

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Orion’s triumphant return.
Gif: NASA/Gizmodo

The uncrewed Orion spacecraft performed a flawless splashdown in the Pacific Ocean earlier today, in what is a very promising and exciting start to the Artemis era of lunar missions.

A recovery team led by NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems is in the midst of recovering the capsule, a careful process that can take upwards of five hours to complete. Orion splashed down at 12:40 p.m. ET as expected, roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Guadalupe Island near Baja, California. The plan is for the USS Portland to deliver the capsule to a naval base in San Diego, and then for a truck to deliver it to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will undergo thorough inspections. Preliminary inspections from helicopter indicate that the capsule is undamaged.

A view of the drogue parachutes shortly after deployment.
A view of the drogue parachutes shortly after deployment.
Screenshot: NASA TV
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A view of Orion’s three main parachutes.
A view of Orion’s three main parachutes.
Screenshot: NASA TV

Today’s finale saw Orion go from 20,000 miles per hour (32,100 kilometers per hour) down to 20 mph (32 km/hr) during its parachute-assisted descent. That’s a rapid and dramatic reduction in speed, to say the least. NASA will want to evaluate the condition of Orion and its heat shield to make sure the system is fit for humans.

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The first view of Orion during its parachute-assisted descent.
The first view of Orion during its parachute-assisted descent.
Screenshot: NASA TV

Controllers successfully regained contact with the capsule following two expected blackout periods during the skip reentry, in which Orion “bounced” off the atmosphere and temporarily returned to space before performing a second plunge. This double reentry procedure—the first ever attempted for a crew-rated spacecraft—helps to dissipate the tremendous heat endured during the return.

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The entire Artemis 1 mission as a whole will be scrutinized, as the space agency makes plans for Artemis 2—a repeat of this mission but with a crew of four astronauts on board. The Artemis program is NASA’s attempt to develop a sustained human presence in the lunar environment.

The recovery team at work.
The recovery team at work.
Screenshot: NASA TV
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That said, the inaugural Artemis mission appears to have gone exceptionally well. The space agency is absolutely glowing about the debut performance of its gigantic Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and Orion did exactly what it was supposed to do: journey to the Moon, enter into a distant retrograde orbit, brush close to the lunar surface, perform an exit maneuver, and arrive home safely and soundly.

Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the USS Portland as being the USS John P. Murtha.

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More: NASA’s Latest Artemis 1 Moon Images Are Truly Jaw-Dropping