The incredible moment Orion splashed back down to Earth: NASA shares stunning photos showing the capsule bobbing in the Pacific Ocean before being winched onto a recovery ship

  • NASA’s capsule splashed down in the Pacific at 09:40 PST (17:40 GMT) Sunday 
  • Artemis 1 mission is a test run before humans fly to the moon later this decade 
  • It travelled over 1.4 million miles on a path around the moon before returning

NASA has shared new photos of the incredible moment the Orion space capsule returned to Earth after flying around the moon. 

The unmanned Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, west of Baja California, at 09:40 PST (17:40 GMT) on Sunday.

Since its launch in mid-November, it has travelled more than 1.4 million miles on a path around the moon and back to Earth. 

The images show before and after the historic point of impact, which marks the first part of Artemis – NASA’s successor to the Apollo programme in the 1960s and 1970s.

NASA’s Orion Capsule descends toward splash down after a successful uncrewed Artemis 1 Moon Mission on December 11, 2022 seen from aboard the USS Portland in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, Mexico

Artemis 1 is NASA’s uncrewed flight test of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, which launched on November 16 from Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida. 

It’s the first part of the Artemis programme, NASA’s successor to Apollo that took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

Artemis 1 is designed to show that the SLS and Orion capsule are ready to carry astronauts to the moon in subsequent Artemis missions. 

Artemis 1 will be followed by a human trip around the moon in Orion in 2024 (Artemis 2) and the first woman and first person of colour landing on the moon in 2025 (Artemis 3).   

The splashdown of the 26-day mission – officially called Artemis 1 – came 50 years after the landing of Apollo 17 on the moon (December 11, 1972). 

Apollo 17 is the last time humans walked on the moon, but the Artemis programme aims to put them back there this decade. 

After Orion landed, it was recovered and secured in the well deck of the USS Portland, a US Navy ship. 

The ship will begin its trip back to US Naval Base San Diego, where engineers will remove Orion in preparation for transport back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for post-flight analysis.  

‘The splashdown of the Orion spacecraft – which occurred 50 years to the day of the Apollo 17 Moon landing – is the crowning achievement of Artemis 1,’ said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. 

‘From the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket to the exceptional journey around the moon and back to Earth, this flight test is a major step forward in the Artemis generation of lunar exploration.  

‘Today is a huge win for NASA, the United States, our international partners, and all of humanity.’

Artemis 1 was not a manned mission, meaning there were no humans aboard the Orion capsule at any time, although there were manikins on board. 

The main goal of this mission was to test Orion’s heat shield, for the day when it is humans riding inside. 

Artemis 1 will be followed by a human trip around the moon aboard Orion in 2024 (Artemis 2) and could lead to the first woman and first person of colour landing on the moon the year after (Artemis 3). 

Prior to its return, Orion successfully separated from its service module at around 17:00 GMT on Sunday in preparation for splashdown. 

It then entered its entry phase, travelling back down to Earth at just under 25,000 miles per hour.  

NASA’s Orion capsule is drawn to the well deck of the USS Portland after it splashed down following a successful uncrewed mission

NASA’s unmanned Orion spaceship comes in for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California, Mexico, on December 11, 2022

NASA’s Orion Capsule is drawn into the well deck of the USS Portland during recovery operations after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean

Crew members gather as NASA’s Orion Capsule is brought into the well deck of the USS Portland following the successful uncrewed mission 

The main goal of this mission was to test Orion’s heat shield – for the day when it is humans riding inside

DISTANCES REACHED FROM EARTH 

Artemis 1

248,655 miles 

November 2022

Apollo 13

268,553 miles

April 1970  

NASA said: ‘During re-entry, Orion endured temperatures about half as hot as the surface of the Sun at about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 

‘Within about 20 minutes, Orion slowed from nearly 25,000 mph to about 20 mph for its parachute-assisted splashdown.’ 

The Orion capsule blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 16 on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Nine days later, it made history by travelling 270,000 miles beyond the Earth – the furthest any spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone.

It flew such a distance – which is more than 1,000 times farther than where the International Space Station orbits Earth – to intentionally stress systems before flying humans. 

In doing so, it broke a record set by the famous Apollo 13 mission, an aborted mission to land on the moon in 1970 that narrowly averted disaster. 

Apollo 13’s mission objective was abandoned due to loss of all the oxygen stored in two tanks in the service module. 

The three-man crew instead looped around the moon and returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970, six days after it launched. 

One of the three Apollo 13 astronauts, Jack Swigert, uttered the infamous words ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem here’, which were misquoted in the 1995 film Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks. 

Pictured, US Navy pilots gather after NASA’s Orion Capsule was brought into the well deck of the USS Portland

The Orion capsule blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 16, 2022 on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. 26 days later it returned to Earth

US Navy sailors of the USS Portland rest in between recovery operations for NASA’s Orion capsule

Screens show NASA’s Orion Capsule secured in the well deck of the USS Portland, a US navy ship

Video feeds are displayed in the USS Portland command centre during recovery operations after Orion splashed down

Also during Artemis 1, Orion stayed in space longer than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has done without docking to a space station.  

The capsule conducted its first close flyby with the moon on November 21, capturing new images of the lunar surface. 

It also snapped a stunning ‘blue marble’ image of Earth nine hours into its epic journey, as well as a ‘selfie’ showing the silver cone-shaped crew module against the darkness of space. 

The Orion capsule performed its first close flyby of the moon on November 21. Images were released by NASA two days later

The images were snapped in black and white but show amazing details of the lunar surface and the blackness that is space

Artemis 1 is an uncrewed test flight test of the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Orion took this selfie using a camera mounted on its solar array wing during a routine external inspection of the spacecraft on the third day of the Artemis 1 mission

NASA’s Orion crew capsule snapped its first image of Earth as it ventured to the moon. This is the first time since 1972 that a human-rated craft has captured a view of our planet 

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carried the Orion capsule to space for its 25-and-a-half day journey around the moon, before the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11

Once Orion is at Kennedy Space Center, teams will open the hatch and unload several payloads, including the three on-board manikins, named Campos, Helga and Zohar.

Campos, which resembles a male body, was equipped with two radiation sensors and additional sensors under its headrest and behind its seat to record acceleration and vibration data throughout the mission. 

Helga and Zohar, which resemble female bodies, have ’tissue-equivalent materials of variable density’ that replicate the proportions of a woman’s body, including bone and soft tissue. 

Helga flew unprotected to the Moon, while Zohar (top) wore a newly developed radiation protection vest, called the AstroRad

Sensors were fitted in the most radiation-sensitive areas of their ‘bodies’ – chest, stomach, uterus and bone marrow.  

Helga flew unprotected, while Zohar was fitted with a newly developed radiation protection vest, called the AstroRad, made of polyethylene to better block harmful protons in space. 

By comparing the two sets of data, it will be possible to determine the extent to which the vest could protect a female astronaut from harmful radiation exposure on future missions. 

NASA will also unload the official Artemis 1 flight kit, which includes 245 silver Snoopy pins, a Dead Sea pebble, 567 American flags and a Shaun the Sheep mascot.

Ahead of the launch of Artemis 1, NASA revealed a list of items it will be sending on its journey to the Earth’s natural satellite, including a Shaun the Sheep mascot (pictured)

The British stop-motion character, a star of the Wallace and Gromit series, is meant to represent the UK and the European Space Agency (ESA) on the flight. 

Shaun has his own spin-off TV series and appeared in his own children’s sci-fi film ‘A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’ in 2019. 

The official Shaun the Sheep Twitter account posted: ‘Shaun is safe and sound and back on Earth after his mission to the Moon! 

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Shaun the Sheep mascot among the bizarre items on Artemis 1 moon mission  

NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon in 2025 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2025 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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