BREVARD, Fla. — NASA's Artemis I mission to deep space and back is nearing its conclusion as the uncrewed Orion spacecraft sailed past the moon Monday morning committing it to the final leg of its journey.
Orion will push away and fully exit the moon's gravitational pull on Tuesday. The coast back toward Earth will take about six days. Blazing in at speeds of up to 25,000 mph, Orion is set to punch through Earth's atmosphere on Dec. 11.
Orion's atmospheric re-entry will push its heat shield and parachute-assisted landing system capabilities to the limit as Orion returns from lunar orbit for the first time. A subsequent splashdown landing is set for 12:42 p.m. ET in the Pacific Ocean off the Coast of California wrapping up the 26-day demonstration mission.
If Orion successfully returns to Earth, NASA will be able to proceed with a lunar flyby with a crew of four for the second Artemis mission in 2024. A third mission will put astronauts on the moon a year or two later.
The Artemis I mission lifted off on Nov. 16, when NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, mega-rocket launched the Orion capsule into space, making it the most powerful rocket to ever be successfully launched.
A powered lunar flyby
After traveling farther from Earth than any other human-rated spacecraft earlier in its mission, Orion approached the moon Monday flying over the landing sites of NASA's Apollo 12 and 14 missions. At the time Orion was about 6,000 miles above the lunar surface.
Zebulon Scoville, NASA flight director, said to reporters on Thursday it was "a tip of the hat and a historical nod to the past," because Orion would be too far to capture any detailed images of the landing sites.
NASA spokesperson, Sandra Jones, said Monday: "The next time we see such a view we will be hearing about it from a crew's perspective during Artemis II."
Orion's Orbital Maneuvering System engine fired up Monday at 11:43 a.m. ET for about 3 1/2 minutes to complete the last of four major burns to perform the return-powered flyby of the moon.
The maneuver flung Orion around the far side of the moon bringing it less than 80 miles above the lunar surface. The move enabled the spacecraft to harness the moon's gravitational force and chart a course back toward Earth.
During Monday's live stream, Nujoud Merancy, NASA's chief of exploration mission planning said: "This is truly our deorbit burn. We're doing a major maneuver which targets our entry in six days."
As Orion swung behind the moon NASA lost its ability to communicate with the spacecraft during a period of expected signal loss of about 40 minutes. Shortly after Orion emerged from behind the moon the signal was restored as expected.
Coincidentally Monday's return powered flyby took place exactly eight years after NASA's first uncrewed Orion test flight, Exploration Flight Test-1. That mission launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Dec. 5, 2014.
The Orion crew module orbited Earth twice before splashing down during that test flight.
Orion recovery preparation
Over the weekend, according to a NASA blog post, the joint teams of NASA's Exploration Ground Systems Program and the U.S. Navy completed a final trial recovery day at sea in the Pacific Ocean with "a mock capsule in the water for divers and small boats to practice open water recovery procedures."
Orion will bleed off speed during a new re-entry approach called the skip re-entry technique. It's designed to skip Orion through Earth's highest reaches of the atmosphere once before reentering, help slow Orion down and avoid the extreme g-forces of a direct re-entry. It also makes for a smoother and safer ride for the spacecraft and its future crews of astronauts.
According to a statement from NASA, "the skip entry ultimately enables the spacecraft to accurately and consistently land at the same landing site regardless of when and where it comes back from the moon."
Upon Orion's dip back into the atmosphere after its skip, the spacecraft will slow to about 300 mph to deploy its parachutes. Orion will then slow to about 20 mph just before splashdown.
Orion is expected to splash down on Sunday approximately 50 miles off the coast of San Diego, California. In anticipation, the joint recovery team will deploy to holding positions in the Pacific Ocean sometime this week.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: NASA Artemis I mission nears end as Orion flies past Apollo sites