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NASA’s Artemis I Orion Leaves Lunar Orbit, Heads Back to Earth

Published: December 1, 2022
Operators in the Operational Control Area at the Goonhilly Earth Station, track signals returning from satellites released from the Artemis unmanned moon rocket on Nov. 17, 2022 in Lizard, Cornwall, England. (Image: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

NASA’s Artemis I Orion spacecraft performed a successful engine burn to leave lunar orbit and head back to Earth on Thursday (Dec 1).

Orion, which launched Nov. 16, 2022, has been in a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon since Nov. 25.

During that time, NASA has been putting the vehicle’s various systems through their paces, which the agency said is going so well, they’ve added additional test objectives.

If the mission succeeds, a crewed Artemis II flight around the moon and back could come as early as 2024, followed within a few years by the program’s first lunar landing of astronauts, one of them a woman, with Artemis III. Sending astronauts to Mars is expected to take at least another decade and a half to achieve.

A top objective is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,400 km) per hour – much faster than re-entries from the space station.

The spacecraft also is set to release 10 miniaturized science satellites including one designed to map ice deposits on the moon’s south pole, where Artemis seeks to eventually land astronauts.

The three-week Artemis I mission entails a 25-day Orion flight bringing the capsule to within about 60 miles (97 km) of the lunar surface before flying about 40,000 miles (64,400 km) beyond the moon and looping back to Earth. The capsule is expected to splash down at sea on Dec. 11.

By Reuters (Production: Colette Luke)