As NASA’s Artemis I mission to the Moon draws to a close, the Orion spacecraft is on its way back to Earth, with the planned splashdown on Sunday, December 11, fast approaching. When Orion is nearing its return to Earth, it will attempt the first skip entry for a human spacecraft. This maneuver is designed to pinpoint its landing spot in the Pacific Ocean.
During this skip entry, Orion will dip into the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and use that atmosphere, along with the lift of the capsule, to skip back out of the atmosphere, then reenter for final descent under parachutes and splashdown. It’s a little like skipping a rock across the water in a river or lake.
“The skip entry will help Orion land closer to the coast of the United States, where recovery crews will be waiting to bring the spacecraft back to land,” said Chris Madsen, Orion guidance, navigation and control subsystem manager. “When we fly crew in Orion beginning with Artemis II, landing accuracy will really help make sure we can retrieve the crew quickly and reduces the number of resources we will need to have stationed in the Pacific Ocean to assist in recovery.”
Ever skip stones throughout a pond? Think about doing it with a spacecraft. When the Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft returns to Earth on the finish of the Artemis I mission, it would try a never-been-done steering and management maneuver known as a skip-entry. This maneuver permits for a exact touchdown location for safer crew restoration efforts.
Throughout Apollo, the spacecraft entered the Earth’s ambiance straight and will then journey as much as 1,725 miles (1,500 nautical miles / 2,880 km) past that location earlier than splashing down. This restricted vary required U.S. Navy ships to be stationed in a number of, distant ocean places. By utilizing a skip entry, Orion can fly as much as 5,524 miles (4,800 nautical miles / 8,890 km) past the purpose of entry, permitting the spacecraft to the touch down with extra precision. The skip entry finally allows the spacecraft to precisely and constantly land on the identical touchdown website no matter when and the place it comes again from the Moon.
“We lengthen the vary by skipping again up out of the ambiance the place there may be little to no drag on the capsule. With little or no drag, we lengthen the vary we fly,” mentioned Madsen. “We use our capsule elevate to focus on how excessive we skip, and thus how far we skip.”
Though the idea of the skip entry has been round because the Apollo period, it wasn’t used as a result of Apollo lacked the required navigational know-how, computing energy, and accuracy.
“We took loads of that Apollo data and put it into the Orion design with the objective of constructing a extra dependable and safer automobile at decrease value,” mentioned Madsen. “These are a few of the issues we’re doing which might be totally different and supply extra functionality than Apollo.”
The skip entry additionally will enable astronauts to expertise decrease g-forces throughout Earth entry from Moon missions. As an alternative of a single occasion of excessive acceleration, there can be two occasions of a decrease acceleration of about 4 g’s every. The skip entry will scale back the acceleration load for the astronauts in order that they have a safer, smoother journey.
Splitting up the acceleration occasions additionally splits up the heating, no small matter for a spacecraft that can endure roughly 5,000 levels Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius) upon reentry, half as hot as the surface of the Sun. The heat the spacecraft will experience upon reentry will be split over two events causing a lower heat rate at both occurrences and ultimately making it a safer ride for the astronauts.
During Artemis missions, Orion will splashdown approximately 50 miles (43 nautical miles / 80 km) off the coast of San Diego, California, where rescue teams are close and can quickly recover the spacecraft. This quick recovery will make it safer for the astronauts. It will also be more cost-efficient than Apollo by eliminating the need for the Navy to deploy ships widely across the target ocean.
As an essential part of NASA’s Artemis program, the Orion spacecraft will fly on NASA’s first integrated test of its deep space exploration systems during Artemis I. The Space Launch System rocket will launch an uncrewed Orion on a mission to travel 40,000 miles beyond the Moon and then return to Earth.