The Orion capsule, this time with no astronauts aboard, will splash down on Sunday afternoon after a 26-day journey that took it to the moon and back.
And on the 26th day, the moon capsule returned to Earth.
During the early hours of Nov. 16, NASA launched a giant rocket toward the moon. The rocket reached orbit and sent a small capsule, this time with no astronauts on board, on its way to the moon. This was the beginning of Artemis I, a mission to test NASA’s ability to return astronauts to the moon 50 years after it last accomplished that feat.
On Sunday, Artemis I will come to an end when that vehicle splashes back down in the Pacific Ocean.
How to watch the splashdown.
The splashdown is expected 12:40 p.m. Eastern time. NASA Television will begin streaming coverage of the return at 11 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday, or you can watch on a video player we will provide here.
NASA will hold a news conference at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time after the splashdown.
Why NASA sent Orion to the moon.
The primary goal of Artemis I was a crucial shakedown of NASA’s new space hardware, including Orion, a spacecraft for carrying astronauts to deep space, including lunar orbit. Orion is unoccupied this time, but it will take astronauts to the moon in the coming years.
During its nearly monthlong journey to and from the moon, Orion got within 80 miles of the lunar surface. It also extended its orbit tens of thousands of miles from the moon. If all goes well on Sunday, the mission will complete its most important objective: proving that the spacecraft can safely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on the way back from the moon, and then splashing down under parachutes in the Pacific Ocean to the west of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
What happens during the return to Earth.
The Orion spacecraft will perform what NASA calls a skip re-entry. During the skip re-entry, the capsule will enter the upper atmosphere, oriented at an angle where the capsule generates enough aerodynamic lift to bounce back up out of the atmosphere. It will then re-enter a second time. It’s almost like throwing a rock that bounces off the surface of a pond before sinking. The maneuver allows more precise steering toward a landing site closer to the coast.
Why NASA is going back to the moon.
NASA officials argue that the moon missions are central to its human spaceflight program — not simply a do-over of the Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972.
“It’s a future where NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said during a news conference earlier this year. “And on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and will develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”
For scientists, the renewed focus on the moon promises a bonanza of new data in the coming years. There is a particular interest in the amount of water ice on the moon, which could be used for astronauts’ water and oxygen supplies in the future and could provide fuel for missions deeper into space.