NASA’s Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft has returned to land.
Orion arrived at Naval Base San Diego on Tuesday (Dec. 13) aboard the USS Portland, the US Navy recovery ship that fished the capsule out of the Pacific Ocean on Sunday (Dec. 11) after its successful splashdown.
The spacecraft will unload from Portland on Wednesday (December 14) and then begin an overland journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, KSC officials he said via Twitter on Tuesday (opens in a new tab).
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It will be a homecoming for Orion, which took off from KSC atop a Space Launch System (SLS) mega rocket on Nov. 16, kicking off the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission.
All went well on the shakeout cruise; the SLS sent Orion on its way to the moon as scheduled, and the capsule verified all desired deep space milestones.
Orion arrived in lunar orbit Nov. 25, departed Dec. 1, and headed toward Earth Dec. 5 conducting an extended engine burn during a close flyby of the moon. The spacecraft returned to its home planet on Sunday, crashing gently under parachutes about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
Once Orion arrives at KSC, Artemis 1 team members will examine it thoroughly, assessing how well the spacecraft and its many subsystems fared in deep space and the harrowing journey back through Earth’s atmosphere.
Technicians will also remove some of the hardware from the capsule for processing and reuse on Artemis 2, the next mission in NASA’s Artemis program of lunar exploration.
Artemis 2 is expected to launch astronauts around the moon in 2024. If all goes well with that flight, Artemis 3 will aim to hit the ground running near the lunar south pole a year or two later, using a SpaceX Starship vehicle as a lander.
NASA aims to build a research base in the south polar region, which is believed to be home to a lot of water ice. The agency also plans to build a small lunar-orbiting space station called Gateway, which will serve as the launching point for surface missions, both manned and unmanned.
The first Gateway components are expected to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) or Facebook (opens in a new tab).